Holidays embody multiple calendars, memories and agendas within contemporary American society. Many formal national holidays tend to reinforce shared civic and historic values, yet they also have become foci of protest, illustrated in the anti-Vietnam book and movie Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Other celebrations are divided by religion, ethnicity region and political meanings. Moreover, holidays vary in scope and seriousness. Thanksgiving produces national respite (and the heaviest travel of the year as families re-unite), while President’s Day (combining Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays) is generally marked only by department-store sales, school lessons and post office closings.
An annual cycle of patriotic festivities has emerged since the founding of the nation, celebrated on Independence Day (July 4), usually outdoors with picnics, political rallies and fireworks. Other holidays remember the war dead (Memorial Day, last Monday in May) and workers (Labor Day, first Monday of September). These also delineate the summer/vacation season, underscored by the 1971 movement of Independence Day and Memorial Day, among other holidays, to Monday to create three-day weekends. Thanksgiving, chartered by stories of pilgrims and Indians celebrating their friendship and survival at Plymouth Rock with a meal of turkey squash and potatoes, was proclaimed a national holiday by George Washington in 1789. It was fixed on the fourth Thursday in November by Lincoln; Franklin Roosevelt moved it a week earlier to promote shopping. Here, diverse family traditions of food and fellowship blend with charity (meals at soup kitchens), commercial events (parades mark the beginning of holiday consumerism) and sports. While Thanksgiving evokes criticism by Native Americans, it remains the most widely celebrated expression of united national identity. Other national public holidays include Columbus Day (October 12 or the second Monday in October), Veteran’s Day (November 11) and presidential birthdays. A holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (third Monday in January) was added to national and state calendars amid intense polemics in the 1980s.
Special national commemorations have included massive celebrations of the American Bicentennial in 1976, and similar anniversaries of wars and battles, sometimes with reenactments or political opportunities/speeches. The presidential inauguration celebrated on January 20 every four years has also taken on trappings of a national festival. In addition, whole months (Black History Month (January), Women’s History (February), etc.) and days for specific causes and celebrities are recognized at the national, state and local level.
New Year’s Eve, while not a patriotic holiday, inscribes the nation through shared media coverage of the crystal ball dropping in New York’s Times Square, as well as urban festivals like First Night and many private parties. January 1 has become the day for parades and football bowl games deciding the rankings of the college season. African American communities have also celebrated January 1 as Emancipation Day.
In addition to civic celebreation, holidays of Christian origin are widely shared and secularized. Halloween (October 31) has been transformed from a feast of the dead to a night celebrating children and neighborhoods, as costumed kids roam from door to door asking for candy. In some inner cities it has also become an excuse for arson and mayhem. Christmas (December 25) once dominated rhythms of school and work, but judicial decisions since the 1960s have tended to dis-establish its presence in public forums. Nonetheless, its general coincidence with Hanukah and the more recently invented Kwanzaa, which celebrates African American values, defines a winter holiday season for public life and commercial intensification.
Easter by contrast remains a more Christian holiday (with separate dates for Western and Orthodox traditions), but also proves less obtrusive since Sunday normally functions as a weekly public and business holiday. The proximity of Easter and Passover also reaffirms the centrality of Judaism and Christianity to American civic religion. Hence, other religious ceremonies tend to be regarded as minoritarian, although they may demand special recognition, such as barring exams during Ramadan. Meanwhile, these holidays can take on the form of other American holidays, stressing family reunions and parties (as in the adaptation of Dimwali among South Asians), gifts or invitations to public awareness.
Religious and national festivals, celebrated in parades, rituals, picnics and fairs, also transform and delineate ethnic enclaves. These include St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) for urban Irish, Columbus Day for Italians and the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12) and Cinco de Mayo (May 5) for Mexicans. These are also popular events for politicians seeking ethnic votes. Firecrackers, dragon dances and restaurant specials announce Chinese New Year for tourists as well as Chinese Americans; other Southeast Asian spring festivals have also blossomed in new immigrant communities. Localized communities also celebrate special founders or events. Confederate Memorial days were widespread in the South, although their celebration has waned with integration and immigration from the North. Abolition Day (March 22) (Puerto Rico), Pioneer Day (July 24) (Utah) and Huey P.Long Day (August 30) (Louisiana) all teach and celebrate local events. Emergent communities make use of the same American model to publicize their identity—Gay Pride Week and its parades have become major celebrations in New York City and San Francisco, CA.
Life-cycle holidays tend to reflect individual rhythms—birthdays, quinceañeros (fifteenth-year parties, especially among Cuban Americans), weddings, retirements, etc. However, commencement/graduation season, in the spring, produces rounds of parties among school-related networks. Ultimately, many US holidays combine sentiment and commercialism. Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May since 1912), for example, has become a major celebration of “family values,” although long-distance telephone congestion, preprinted cards and flowers by wire underscore the spatial divisions of modern families. Father’s Day (second Sunday in June) was a later addition, followed by derivative recognitions like Grandparent’s Day (first Sunday after Labor Day) or Secretary’s Day (April 23). Paula Jones cited failure to recognize Secretary’s Day as evidence of her mistreatment by Bill Clinton.
Most major festivals share “American features,” including a stress on family/community food (both public and private) and opportunities for both internal rituals and outward celebration in parades, speeches and parties. Whether one-time events like the Bicentennial or annual celebrations with multiple interpretations like Thanksgiving, they define shared memories and points of challenge within the national cultural project.