American Holidays

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American Holidays

American Holidays is an introductory survey of the historical and social background of American holidays.

People in every culture celebrate holidays. Although the word "holiday" literally means "holy day," most American holidays are not religious, but commemorative in nature and origin. Because the nation is blessed with rich ethnic heritage it is possible to trace some of the American holidays to diverse cultural sources and traditions, but all holidays have taken on a distinctively American flavor. In the United States, the word "holiday" is synonymous with "celebration! "

In the strict sense, there are no federal (national) holidays in the United States. Each of the 50 states has jurisdiction over its holidays. In practice, however, most states observe the federal ("legal or public ") holidays, even though the President and Congress can legally designate holidays only for federal government employees. The following ten holidays per year are proclaimed by the federal government.

Martin Luther King Day

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a black clergyman who is ranked among the greatest of black Americans because of his crusade to win full civil rights for his people. Preaching nonviolence, much in the same way as had Mahatma Gandhi of India, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and campaigned tirelessly to rid the United States of traditions and laws that forced on black Americans the status of second-class citizens. Among these laws were those in some states which required black people to take back seats in buses or which obstructed voting by blacks.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used boycotts, marches, and other forms of nonviolent protest to demand equal treatment under the law and an end to racial prejudice. A high point of this civil rights movement came on August 28, 1963, when more than 200,000 people of all races gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear King say: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Not long afterwards the U.S. Congress passed laws prohibiting discrimination in voting, education, employment, housing, and public accommodations.

The world was shocked when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. Ever since, special memorial services have marked his birthday on January 15. By vote of Congress, the third Monday of every January, beginning in 1986, is now a federal holiday in Dr. King's honor.

Presidents' Day

Until the mid-1970s, the February 22 birthday of George Washington, hero of the Revolutionary War and first president of the United States, was a national holiday. In addition, the February 12 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the president during the Civil War (1861-1865), was a holiday in most states.

In the 1970s, Congress declared that in order to honor all past presidents of the United States, a single holiday, to be called Presidents' Day, would be observed on the third Monday in February. In many states, however, the holiday continues to be known as George Washington's birthday.

Memorial Day

This holiday, on the fourth Monday of every May, is a day on which Americans honor the dead. Originally a day on which flags and flowers were placed on graves of soldiers who died in the American Civil War, it has become a day on which the dead of all wars and all other dead are remembered the same way.

In 1971, along with other holidays, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. Cities all around the United States hold their own ceremonies on the last Monday in May to pay respect to the men and women who have died in wars or in the service of their country. In many communities, special ceremonies are held in cemeteries or at monuments for the war dead by veterans of military services. Some hold parades and others hold memorial services or special programs in churches, schools or other public meeting places.

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