10 American Public Holidays Brits Should Know

Americans celebrate the birthday of their first president, George Washington.

As you may have noticed, Americans like to work hard and play hard. Just as well really, since the amount of public holidays here is less than Brits are used to – though you will get some new ones. As the U.S. eases into the Labor Day weekend, here’s a rundown of America’s equivalent to our bank holidays. Plan your excursions accordingly (although note that not all offices close on these days).

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
The third Monday in January, it celebrates the birthday of the clergyman and civil rights leader. The holiday began in 1986 – and Stevie Wonder wrote “Happy Birthday” in support of it – but was only observed in every state by the year 2000. Like all these federal holidays, it means that all government buildings are closed and there will be no mail delivery.

2. Presidents Day
The third Monday in February. It pays tribute to first President George Washington, and is officially known as Washington’s Birthday. Originally it took place on his actual birth date, February 22, and there was talk of combining it with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which is February 12 (actually a holiday in California and a few other states). But overall it’s a good time to get a deal on a new car and mattresses.

3. Easter
No massive change for Brits here. Same “movable feast” dates (next year it starts March 31), though the Brit obsession with chocolate eggs and the chance to stuff your face with them are not quite at the same level here in the U.S.A. – maybe because the U.S. holiday feels less secular. Big family dinner though.

4. Memorial Day
The last Monday of May, it remembers the men and women who have died in the U.S. armed forces. It began as a commemoration of the dead of the U.S. Civil War, but these days it honors all Americans who have died in all wars. Many will visit cemeteries festooned in stars and stripes flags, and since it usually marks the start of the summer vacation, it’s often a long weekend of barbeques, shopping and fireworks.

5. Independence Day
A celebration of July 4, 1776 when the first thirteen U.S. colonies (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) approved the historic document. It’s a day for fireworks, cookouts and travel chaos – and, among the uniquely American holidays, is second only to Thanksgiving in importance.

6. Labor Day
Seen as the end of the summer (and the day that my local city swimming pool closes), it falls on the first Monday in September and celebrates the economic and social contributions of unions and workers. That part of it has got rather lost over the years, and here it’s best known as the beginning of the NFL season – and the last hurrah before the kids go back to school.

7. Columbus Day
October 12 sees a very American celebration; it’s the anniversary of the day that 15th century Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” America (or got fairly close, anyway). Celebrated in Spain and many countries in the Americas, it holds special significance for immigrant communities and celebrates its 75th birthday as an official Federal holiday this year (though not in Hawaii, Alaska or South Dakota, who don’t recognize it). Some places hold parades, while for most others it’s another excuse for big sales.

8. Veterans Day
November 11 is the day that honor armed forces veterans – not those who died during service – and also marks the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended WWI (formally at 11am on 11/11 in 1918). Brits know it already as Remembrance Day.

9. Thanksgiving
The non-denominational biggie. Often a huge family event with turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and oodles of other food and drink, it’s a long weekend that starts on the fourth Thursday in November. Tradition says it marks the successful 1621 harvest meal of colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, though legend says it was also a shared meal with Native Americans, who had given the settlers seeds and taught them to fish. One of the most expensive and stressful times to travel, it follows Halloween as the beginning of the end of the year.

10. Christmas Day
The same day, though in politically/religiously correct America you’ll more hear people talk of “the Holidays” and about the menorah candles of the eight–day Hanukkah (Jewish) and Kwanzaa (an African-American week-long celebration that starts December 26). Regardless of how you celebrate, there’s no Boxing Day on the 26th – so back to work for you (if it’s not the weekend)!

Which U.S. public holiday is your favorite?

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.
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  • Kayleigh

    Columbus Day is controversial, and many places do not recognize it now (due to the whole genocide thing). I remember that my school district in California stopped giving the day off to students when I was 9 (about 1997). Also, if you live in Massachusetts or Maine there is a holiday called Patriot’s Day. It falls on the third Monday of April. Many people call it Marathon Monday, because its the day that the Boston Marathon is run. Most people get the day off work.

    • Ken

      Patriot’s Day marks the Battles of Lexington and Concord which touched off the War for American Independence. Maine celebrates the holiday because it was part on Massachusetts until 1820 which indicates Patriot’s Day was holiday before 1820.

  • Maggie

    Doesn’t mention all the local holidays. My cousins get off school in Louisana for a WEEK due to Mardi Gras.

  • Sylleeh

    OMG! You forgot one of the most important holidays of all – St. Patrick’s Day! Okay…so it’s not a federal holiday (yet), but its the one day of the year where all Americans claim to have (or wish they had) a wee bit o’ Irish blood in ’em. Plus you have to wear something green or else you will get pinched!

  • gn

    There are actually more public holidays in the US than in England and Wales, contrary to what the article claims. A quick glance at Wikipedia would have told you this, but hey, I don’t expect that level of research from the BBC any more.

    Perhaps we can mount a campaign for the English “Spring Bank Holiday” and “August/Late Summer Bank Holiday” to be given less bland names?

  • gz

    Columbus was not Spanish he wan an Italian. Who recieved funding from the Spanish monarchy for his explorations.

  • JAS

    Actually, Independence Day is a more “important” holiday than Thanksgiving. And though some states may not celebrate Columbus Day, it is still a federal holiday, so no mail is delivered and no banks are open.

  • Olivia

    Independence Day is definitely the top American holiday. There are always tons of different events to go to for all ages, parades, festivals, barbeques, firework shows, etc… Celebrating it doesn’t take much effort, unlike Thanksgiving. All you could do is put on some red, white and blue and look up into the night sky and watch fireworks being set off anywhere in a 15 mile radius. The national pride is infectious and it’s in the summer when families are more able to get together.

    With Thanksgiving, a lot of people tend to think of it as the starting point of the holiday season and prepare for the next day which is the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. It can also be more trouble to travel to see your family for the time off you have. Last year, I had class until the day before Thanksgiving and to get to my aunt’s house two states over for a family dinner was near impossible without having a psychotic break or breaking my bank. I’d rather put that money and effort towards a Christmas visit. I had deli chicken and jojos while having a Doctor Who marathon, instead.

  • jeyeff

    How about NEW YEAR day?

  • Ken

    Easter is not a federal holiday or state holiday although most businesses are closed. Unlike the U.K. and Canada there is no time off for Good Friday (except the stock market) and Easter Monday.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.hayden.5 Michael Hayden

    As a country, we like to “borrow” other holidays. So forget about Columbus Day, and add St Patrick’s Day and Cinco De Mayo (5th of May) to the list. Lots of parties, even if the natives have no real idea as to what the holiday is about.

  • Lizz

    What world are you living in that has Labor day before classes start? At least where I live, classes start early to mid August.

  • Sarah Spencer

    Many, dare I say MOST, Native Americans don’t celebrate Columbus day. As far as I know schools on the Navajo and Apache Reservations don’t take the day off. Many Natives do celebrate Indian Day, or Native American Day, on or around what most folks know as Columbus Day.