In 2024, there will be eleven federal holidays in total. They're spread quite evenly throughout the year, so they are a welcome regular day off for most that crop up at reasonably regular intervals. But they're not just about having the day off work. There are certain celebrations, customs, and activities that take place, which lend each day a particular character. We'll look at each of the federal holidays in turn.
Of the eleven federal holidays, three are birthdays of prominent individuals, while others are held to honor certain groups who have contributed to the progress and position of the US. Finally, there are federal holidays that are in celebration of the country itself, drawing one and all together in a celebration of home.
What makes federal holidays federal holidays?
Federal holidays are national holidays set aside by the federal government to mark significant elements that have made the USA what it is today. These can be all about historical figures whose work is feted, or they can be centered on particular groups of people. Or there are those federal holidays that may be just marking a significant juncture in time. New Year's Day is a good example of the last one.
There are many days that you might think are a big deal but aren’t federal holidays. Halloween is one.
Federal holidays tend to be very widely celebrated, especially Independence Day, although they originally started as just for the employees of the federal government and agencies. The sentiments of unification and shared celebration have meant that most federal holidays receive recognition right across the country.
They are a chance to reflect and reaffirm the nation and its citizens' commitment to particular values. So, it's a lot more than just a day off. Or, if it is a day off, it's a chance to bond with the community and, especially, family. Relatives travel sometimes great distances to be with each other on federal holidays.
The picture can be complicated somewhat in that only the federal government and its agencies are statutorily obliged to observe federal holidays. State governments and private companies are not compelled to give their employees the day off, but many do, where possible. Emergency services are obviously not in a position to give all their employees a day off on the federal holiday date itself, but another day will commonly be substituted in its place.
What happens when a federal holiday falls on a weekend?
Usually, what happens is this. If the federal holiday falls on a Saturday, the day off is granted on the preceding Friday instead. If the federal holiday falls on a Sunday, however, the day off is granted on the Monday immediately following.
Facilities and agencies that are usually open on weekends will typically close on federal holidays, meaning that federal employees in these places will celebrate the holiday on the actual day rather than having it moved to the preceding Friday or following Monday.
Where an organization has to stay open, the federal employees working that day will either receive a substitute day off, perhaps on the preceding Friday or following Monday, or holiday pay (or combination).
List of all federal holidays during 2024
New Year's Day - Monday, January 1st.
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr - Monday, January 15th.
Washington's birthday (Presidents' Day) - Monday, February 19th (commuted from Sunday 18th).
Memorial Day - Monday, May 27th.
Juneteenth National Independence Day - Wednesday, June 19th.
Independence Day - Thursday, July 4th.
Labor Day - Monday, September 2nd.
Columbus Day - Monday, October 14th.
Veterans Day - Monday, November 11th.
Thanksgiving Day - Thursday, November 28th.
Christmas Day - Wednesday, December 25th.
New Year's Day
So, let's start with the first federal holiday in the calendar - one that's actually celebrated in a huge number of countries across the globe - New Year's Day, Monday 1st January 2024. It's a time for looking ahead, deciding on new priorities and aims, steeling oneself in the pursuit of betterment, and recovering from the previous night's festivities.
New Year's Day is the world's most widely held public holiday, which gives an indication of its significance to citizens of Earth, regardless of nation and government. In most places, it takes place exactly seven days after Christmas.
New Year's Day, as with many other federal holidays, is often marked with a big feast, with what's on offer largely dependent on whereabouts in the country you are. Way down south, they like to serve Hoppin' John - a spread including black-eyed peas, rice, and pork. Folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania often enjoy a dish of pork and sauerkraut.
Communities with a large Hispanic component tend to enjoy a traditional meal of tamales at this time of year. Finally, if you're in Pittsburgh, don't be surprised if you get offered a bite from a New Year's Day Monday munch in the shape of a giant pretzel.
Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr
The work and all-too-short life of Dr. Martin Luther King is commemorated on this day, thanks to the campaigning work of Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, and a huge number of other cultural figures who thought it was important that such a key figure should have his role celebrated across the nation. The Birthday of Martin Luther King holiday falls on the third Monday in January.
Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister who preached equality, inclusiveness, and opportunity for all, regardless of creed or color. Using Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent approach, he inspired millions and made a huge difference in the lives of minorities across the US, but fell to an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
So, it's a day of celebration but also of somber recollection of the work and fate of Martin Luther King. It's also a day when people often commit themselves to good works, volunteering their labor for the day to help operations that help others.
Washington's birthday (Presidents' Day)
Washington's birthday was originally ordained as a celebration of the life of George Washington, the first president of the US. It has become a day of thanksgiving for all presidents, past and present. It's only informally known as Presidents' Day, however - it's officially still a celebration of Washington's birthday.
Interestingly, Washington himself was renowned for not enjoying much fuss on his big day, so maybe it's just as well that we don't make it all one big Washington's birthday gala.
Washington's birthday holiday falls on the third Monday in February and is a time when people tend to think about the value of good leadership. Schools and museums will often have themed lessons and exhibits about our nation's leaders who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of the United States.
In the US Senate, George Washington's farewell address is read out by a sitting senator, and meanwhile, retail stores will often hold Washington's birthday sales.
Starting out as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for the dead of the US Civil War, this solemn holiday has become a day to commemorate all those who have died in United States military service. The day is usually spent in quiet contemplation of the sacrifice of others, and visits to war cemeteries are often undertaken.
However, it's not all sadness - some treat it as the unofficial start of summer, so barbecues and other opportunities for social networking are quite often enjoyed, just as on many other federal holidays.
Juneteenth National Independence Day
Another day when there's a mix of sober remembrance and sizzling steaks is Juneteenth. This marks the date when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with the news that slavery was over. The name of the day is a conflation of June and Nineteenth, the date of the event.
It's a day to remember just what a price was paid by huge numbers of enslaved people during the 17th-19th centuries. But it's primarily a day to celebrate African American accomplishments, so parades and carnivals are widespread, as are family gatherings and barbecues.
Independence Day is when the birth of the United States of America in 1776 is celebrated. Also called Fourth of July, Independence Day is a massive deal, as you'd expect.
The country unites in a flurry of red, white, and blue as Independence Day parades and celebrations abound from sea to shining sea, with everyone thankful to be free of British rule and masters of their own destiny. Independence Day can be about more than this, though. The joy of being independent in one's own life can be celebrated on Independence Day.
This holiday falls on the first Monday in October. It's dedicated to the struggle of the working man and woman and to the work of the labor movement in striving to improve the lot of the working class.
So, it's a day set aside to think about the great progress made in terms of working conditions and pay. It's also looked on by many as the unofficial end of summer, so it's a day when the last big outdoor gatherings tend to take place.
Columbus made landfall in October 1492, and we now celebrate his accomplishment with Columbus Day, dedicated to his memory.
Many choose to look at Columbus Day as a day to promote Italian-American culture. Others take issue with Columbus Day, however, as its celebration might be seen to be at odds with a recognition of the rights of the indigenous people of the American continent.
Yet others point out that Columbus Day is celebrating the wrong person, as the Italian seafarer wasn't even the first European to make the trip to the New World - boatloads of Vikings did it hundreds of years before.
So, Columbus Day is a tricky one, all told. But, hey, it's a federal holiday nonetheless, so maybe use Columbus Day to make your own discovery.
This is a day on which the service of US armed forces members is marked in the minds of Americans everywhere. What's the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day?
Veterans Day is about all servicepeople, alive and dead, so it focuses the mind on current conflicts and those who might be struggling to adapt to peacetime following time spent overseas on active service. For this reason, Veterans Day sees a good deal of community activity aimed at improving the lives of ex-servicepeople.
Thanksgiving Day is a federal holiday with origins going way back to 1621 when pilgrims held a great feast to give thanks for a successful year and harvest. They invited the local Wampanoag people to enjoy their feast with them, which set the precedent for the togetherness that defines Thanksgiving Day celebrations now.
As well as the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner of turkey, yams, and pumpkin pie, the day is marked with huge events such as major football games and the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Thanksgiving Day holiday falls on the fourth Thursday in November.
So we come to the last federal holiday of the year, which is Christian in origin but has grown to such huge proportions that it's become a fixture in the calendars of most, both across the country and the world.
Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25th, even though this was, in all likelihood, not the date that Jesus was born. But no matter. The date has become synonymous with Christmas Day, a festival of good cheer, love, and giving. Peace and harmony are celebrated with church services, special events, and, of course, a huge Christmas Day family dinner.
Holidays for all
So, there we have it. Eleven holidays, including Independence Day, Veterans Day, and the Birthday of Martin Luther King, say a good deal about what the US stands for. Past accomplishments are underlined, and future triumphs are hoped for.
A whole tapestry of achievement and culture finds expression in US federal holidays, and they are, without a doubt, a rightly appreciated break from the every day, both by federal employees and people right across the country.
You can use them to just chill or catch up on Virgin River. But the most significant aspect of them is perhaps their emphasis on togetherness. They are opportunities for us to recognize what's great about each other and to celebrate it together.