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The History of Holidays


In the United States, this is a week marked by big spending. As the week began, the U.S. national debt hit the $22 trillion mark – a staggering sum that has nearly doubled over the last decade. But that’s actually not the most daunting news-making figure you’ll hear today.

That number is this one: Americans will spend nearly $21 billion this year on Valentine’s Day – and that’s with only half of U.S. consumers planning to celebrate it. According to the National Retail Federation, which represents the beneficiaries of this explosion of economic activity, in preparation for tomorrow, Americans will spend about $1 billion on greeting cards, $3.5 billion on entertainment, and triple that on jewelry.


And Valentine’s Day isn’t even a federal holiday.


Americans are likely to spend billions more this weekend as retailers celebrate the three-day President’s Day weekend by offering deep discounts on appliances, electronics, apparel, automobiles, any many other products. Though we won’t dive here into the evolution of the nexus between commerce and our most renown presidents’ birthdays, the economic impact of federal holidays – both in terms of additional spending and lost productivity – can be significant.


Though it seems like there are far more, in truth there are only 10 federal holidays: the three we’ll have celebrated by the end of next week – New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and President’s Day – after which there is a reprieve until Memorial Day in May. After that we’ll celebrate the 4th of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and, finally, Christmas. Inauguration Day, which happens every four years following presidential elections, also is considered a federal holiday (though Congress’ inauguration day, which happens at the beginning of every other January, isn’t).


Given how economically impactful federal holidays can be, how are they created?


Since the inception of the American republic, the president has had the authority to declare a one-time federal holiday any time he or she wants, but it takes an act of Congress to declare a permanent one-day vacation. According to the Congressional Research Service, which is part of the Library of Congress, these holidays are “designed to emphasize a particular aspect of American heritage or to celebrate an event in American history.”


For its first century as a nation, the United States had not a single official federal holiday.


Congress changed that in one fell swoop in 1870 with a bill that formalized the observation of New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as federal holidays and giving federal workers a day off work. Until 1885, it was only government employees in Washington, D.C. who got the day off. And for the first decade or so federal holidays were unpaid days off for civil servants. That didn’t last long and, by 1999, the Congressional Research Service estimated that a single federal holiday cost taxpayers “$220 to $240 million … in lost productivity in the federal workforce and more than $4 billion in the private sector.”


Of course, while it takes an act of Congress to declare a federal holiday, in practice, many, like Thanksgiving, were celebrated without government sanction for years.


On Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, President George Washington, who had been in office for only six months under what was then the new American constitutional government, issued a proclamation calling for a “day of thanksgiving a prayer” to be celebrated that year. He issued the same decree six years later, but that year Thanksgiving was celebrated in February. John Adams signed two Thanksgiving proclamations, but the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was a deist and refrained from calling for thanksgiving and prayer.


It wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln was in the White House that the day of thanksgiving became widely celebrated throughout the nation. Prompted by lobbying campaign launched by Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer, editor, and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” President Lincoln returned the nation to its colonial roots and declared a national day of thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November.


When Congress formally established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1870, it was sometimes celebrated on the third Thursday in November and sometimes in December. It wasn’t until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office that the third November Thursday became the legally-observed day of celebration.


In 1879, lawmakers added George Washington’s Birthday (now observed as President’s Day) to the holiday list. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, came in 1888; Labor Day, six years later. Veterans’ Day, originally called Armistice Day and meant to signify a day of peace, was established in 1938, when the world – or at least the United States – thought it already had fought the war to end all wars and when conflict was brewing in Europe.

Inauguration Day became a holiday in 1956; Columbus Day was established in 1968; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday first was marked in 1983, 15 years after the civil rights leader’s death and 15 years after lawmakers began deliberations about whether to formally observe the icon’s life and message. (In 1979, Congress actually rejected legislation to observe King’s birthday. There are still four lawmakers serving in Congress today who voted against making MLK Day a holiday.)


Before June 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act (UHA), President’s Day was celebrated on Feb. 22, Memorial Day on May 30, and Veterans Day on Nov. 11. The UHA moved these celebrations so that they always would be celebrated on a Monday. Why? One reason was to give families the opportunity to “be together,” another was to give Americans the chance to “enjoy a wider range of recreational activities, since they would be afforded more time to travel.” In other words: to incentivize Americans to boost the economy by taking trips and going shopping. Be thankful for that as you’re backed up on the New Jersey Turnpike.


An automatic day off to observe national holidays is applicable only to employees of the U.S. government, including the U.S. Postal Service, and employees of the District of Columbia, though most private employers follow suit. States also can establish their own holidays, independent of the federal government. Pennsylvania considers the day after Thanksgiving a holiday; California marks Cesar Chavez Day on April 1; Rhode Island observes Victory Day in mid-August to commemorate the end of World War II; and several southern states, including Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, still close their respective government offices to celebrate Robert E. Lee Day every year. Noting Lee was a “was a traitor to the United States of America … responsible for the death of over 700,000 combatants and civilians” during the Civil War, a petition this year to end Robert E. Lee Day in Alabama attracted more than 20,000 supporters.


Are we likely to see any new federal holidays in the future? Perhaps.


The first piece of legislation introduced by House Democrats this year would make Election Day a national holiday – not in order to boost economic activity, but in an effort to get more Americans to the polls. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of Democratic voters and about 60 percent of Republicans support that idea, making the concept ... more popular than Valentine’s Day.

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