Federal Holidays Tell a Unique and Sobering Story About United States History

Federal Holidays Tell a Unique and Sobering Story About the History of the United States

A typical monthly calendar it is filled with special days like Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Palm Sunday, Passover, National Day of Prayer, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Armed Forces Day, and others– mostly being either “Hallmark” or religious holidays.

However, there is special set of patriotic holidays which has been enacted into law by the Federal government. The majority of which is celebrated in America exclusively. I didn’t use the word recognize here is because in today’s culture, the meaning for some is mostly forgotten, unappreciated, or watered down as just another day off from work for the Federal employee. Although these patriotic celebrations are frequently referred to as “national holidays,” legally they are only applicable to federal employees and the District of Columbia as paid holidays. Neither Congress nor the President has asserted the authority to declare a “national holiday” that would be binding on the 50 states, as each state individually determines its own legal holidays. Creating a holiday for federal employees does, however, affect each state in a variety of ways, including the delivery of mail and conduct of business with federal agencies.

Federal Holidays History

So why does the Federal government identify this particular set of days to revere above all the others? It is not because the other days are not venerated and culturally relevant. No. It is because these days are among many other heroic days that, when fully understood and celebrated, are meant to pull the United States of America, the free People, together as “one nation under God”. With the exception of the George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. birthdays and Inauguration Day, the remaining holidays were already being observed in a majority of the state governments and eventually brought to the national level via Congressional declaration.

In fairness, all the American heroic days that could be celebrated cannot become Federal holidays because the Federal Government would never be open for business. Arguably, this might be a good thing in the view of some, but not most.

These are the selected Federal holidays chosen by the American people and enacted by our Congress starting in 1870 when the first four were established. They are not ordered by calendar day, but sequenced in order from oldest to the youngest, to punctuate times that reflect the underpinning of America and the founding belief held by its citizens. When I look at these holidays in chronological order, it definitely tells a sobering story for all Americans to reflect upon. Hopefully, this will pique your curiosity and enable further research to share with your family and friends.

New Year’s Day, January 1 – This is the first day of the first month of each calendar year and has been celebrated as far back as 2000 BC in Iraq. In 1st century pre Christian Rome under the Julian calendar, the day was dedicated to Janus, god of gateways and beginnings, for whom January is also named. As a date in the 16th century Gregorian calendar of Christendom, New Year’s Day liturgically marked the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, which is still observed as such in the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church.

In the United States, this day was one of four enacted by Congress in 1870 along with Christmas Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Independence Day. It is traditional to spend this occasion together with loved ones. A toast is made to the new year with kisses, fireworks and parties among the customs. It is popular to make a New Year’s resolution, although that is optional. The arrival of the new year is traditionally announced at the stroke of midnight with fireworks, music and a live celebration that is broadcast worldwide. This is a very special day when all people should raise up Jesus Christ in their life as Moses did with the Israelites in Exodus 40.

Christmas Day, December 25 – Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. The statement in John 1:14 that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is the Christmas story in a nutshell. This is a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. Over 2000 years ago, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, His Crucifixion and Resurrection gave rise to the faith of Christianity that was, by the providence of God, the glorious faith of colonists and the founding fathers of the United States of America.

It was in 1870, five years after the horrendous Civil War ended, that Congress drafted legislation “to correspond with similar laws of States around the District,” and “in every State of the Union” of which there were 37 at the time. Congress was responding to the will of the people to raise up the source of their faith and the undeniable foundation of our free country, “one nation under God”.

One of the most amazing celebrations called The Christmas Truce, happened in the year 1914 before the United States joined World War 1 in Europe. The Christmas spirit manifest itself in the most unlikely of places-a World War I battlefield. Starting on the evening of December 24, scores of German, British and French troops in Belgium laid down their arms and initiated a spontaneous holiday ceasefire. The truce was reportedly instigated by the Germans, who decorated their trenches with Christmas trees and candles and began singing carols like “Silent Night.” British troops responded with their own rendition of “The First Noel,” and the weary combatants eventually ventured into “no man’s land”—the treacherous, bombed-out space that separated the trenches—to greet one another and shake hands. According to accounts from the men involved, the soldiers shared cigarettes and pulls of whiskey, and some exchanged Christmas presents with men they had been shooting at only hours before. Taking advantage of the brief lull in combat, some Scottish, English and German troops even played a pick-up game of soccer on the frozen battlefield. The truce was not sanctioned by the officers on either side, and eventually the men were called back to their respective trenches to resume fighting. Later attempts at holiday meetings were mostly forbidden, but as the war dragged on the “Christmas Truce” would stand as a remarkable example of shared humanity and brotherhood on the battlefield.

Columbus Day, Second Monday in October – Christopher Columbus and crew sailed the ocean blue on August 3, 1492. Financed and equipped by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, they were in search of a shorter route to India and the Orient. They set sail on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, but the Americas initially stood in their way. Their first encounter with land was in the islands before Cuba and Hispaniola known as the Bahama Islands. Columbus is recorded as the first European to explore the Americas, but he never encountered the shores of North America. In subsequent trips back to this same area, he always thought he had arrived in the Orient.

Though preceded by a short-lived Norse colonization of North America led by Leif Erikson in the 11th century, Columbus is the first European explorer credited with establishing and documenting routes to the Americas, securing lasting European ties to the Americas by inaugurating a period of exploration, conquest, and colonization by Spain, France, Brittan, and the Netherlands that lasted for several centuries.

As history records it, this land, discovered by mistake, owes its name to yet another mistake. A different explorer, also of Italian decent as Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, captured the public’s imagination with his account of his travels claiming he was traversing an entirely “New World.” And following the death of Columbus in 1506, cartographer Martin WaldenseeMüller, of Saint-Dié, France, published a world map in 1507 showing the surprisingly detailed contour of a vast new continent he called America – in honor of Amerigo Vespucci. This is definitely a prime example of the old saying “The pen is mightier than the sword”.

Candidly, this is one holiday viewed contentiously by many Native-American citizens whose ancestors were victimized by European colonists from unknown diseases, to slavery, to racism and war. This period of colonization was a brutal transition between the European countries seeking riches, power, and domination and the indigenous populations of the North, Central and South Americas. The only rule of law was what the colonists devised and was largely self-serving. When eventually recognized by several European monarchies that this was a “New World”, the mentality of “expanding the Empire” took over by way of colonization. For the next 284 years, the Americas was the land of opportunity up for grabs by those strong enough to take it.

However, in 1968, Columbus Day was made a federal holiday for several reasons. Among the most prominent was that observance was already an established holiday in 45 states. By also commemorating Columbus’s voyage to the New World, Congress believed that the nation would be honoring the courage and determination which enabled generations of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America. Such a holiday would, according to a Senate report, also provide “an annual reaffirmation by the American people of their faith in the future, a declaration of willingness to face with confidence the imponderables of unknown tomorrows”.

Thanksgiving Day, Fourth Thursday in November – Based on the “discovery” by Columbus in 1492, England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands launched major colonization programs in North, Central , and South America. In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower, left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers including the crew. They were an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals were lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the English colonies. It included 50 persons who were on the Mayflower (all who remained of the 102 who had landed) and 90 Native Americans. This was the beginning of the Plymouth, England colony now memorialized in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

On Thursday, November 26, 1789, President George Washington issued the first proclamation calling for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Six years later, President Washington called for a second day of thanksgiving on Thursday, February 19, 1795. Not until 1863, however, did the nation begin to observe the occasion annually. That year, President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation inviting “my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise for our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

George Washington’s Birthday, Third Monday in February – Born February 22, 1732 in his parents Pope’s Creek Estate near present-day Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797 and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and later presided over the 1787 convention that drafted the United States Constitution. He is popularly considered the driving force behind the nation’s establishment and came to be known as the “father of the country,” both during his lifetime and to this day. This holiday was established by Congress in 1879 with principal intent to make February 22 “a bank holiday.”

Enactment of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 shifted the commemoration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February and renamed the holiday as President’s Day.

Independence Day, Fourth of July – commemorates the U.S. Continental Congress adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Over time, all non-British colonies in North America east of the Mississippi River were taken over by British rule and most of the inhabitants were assimilated into thirteen colonies. The Continental Congress declared that the thirteen American colonies now belonging to the British Empire, regarded themselves as a new nation, the United States of America, and were no longer part of the British Empire. Something the entire world had never seen before was boldly stated in their Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The precursor behind this started with the founding of the Plymouth colony in 1621 by Pilgrims seeking religious freedom from persecution, and the subsequent evangelism of George Whitefield throughout the growing colonies. The idea of freedom of religion flourished into what was called The Great Awakening. Colonists had already felt the freedom of self-governing over the past decades and were now frustrated and fed-up with British rule, taxation, and tyranny. The population had grown substantially and the original desire of religious freedom and independence from government dictatorship had grown with it.

Subsequent to winning independence in the resulting Revolutionary War in 1783, the colonial government was still somewhat dysfunctional under the Articles of Confederation until the founding fathers created the United States Constitution in 1789. This now became the supreme law of the land which we continue to live by today and has been amended 27 times to meet the changing needs of a nation now profoundly different from the eighteenth-century world in which its creators lived.

In 1870, the U.S. Congress made Independence Day an unpaid Federal holiday which was eventually changed by Congress in 1938 to a paid Federal holiday.

Memorial Day, last Monday in May – Originally called Decorations Day, this day commemorates all soldiers who have died serving in war beginning with the American Civil War of April 1861to May 1865. The holiday was originally held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970. In 1868, General John A. Logan, Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. However, both the North and the South had been traditionally decorating soldiers graves long before this time.

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decorations Day” to “Memorial Day,” which was first used in 1882. Memorial Day did not become the more common name until post World War II and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years. In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act asking people to stop and remember at 3:00 P.M.

Labor Day, first Monday in September – This holiday honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country. It is the Monday of the long weekend known as Labor Day Weekend and it is considered the unofficial end of summer in the United States. Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor. “Labor Day” was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, which organized the first parade in New York City. In 1887, Oregon was the first state of the United States to make it an official public holiday. By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty states officially celebrated Labor Day.

Veterans Day, November 11 – This holiday was originally congressionally declared Armistice Day in 1938 to honor the service of all World War I veterans. The major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. The term Armistice means a temporary suspension of hostilities by agreement of the warring parties; truce. By 1938, Armistice Day was already a holiday in 48 states. By 1954, however, the United States had been involved in two other military engagements: World War II and the Korean War. Instead of creating additional federal holidays to commemorate each war, Congress felt it would be better to commemorate the service of all American veterans on a single day. On June 1, 1954, the name of Armistice Day was officially changed to Veterans Day. This legislation did not establish a new holiday. Rather, it broadened the “significance of an existing holiday in order that a grateful nation, on a day dedicated to the cause of world peace, may pay homage to all of its veterans.” In 1968, with the passage of the “Law,” Veterans Day was designated as one of five holidays that would henceforth be celebrated on a Monday and the date was changed from November 11 to the fourth Monday in October. In 1975, Congress returned Veterans Day to November 11 after it became apparent that “veterans’ organizations opposed the change, and 46 states either never changed the original observation date or returned the official observance to November 11.” In the event that November 11 falls on a Saturday, the federal holiday is observed on the preceding Friday. For a holiday that falls on a Sunday, the federal holiday is observed on the following Monday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Third Monday in January – Born Michael King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), he was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.

But from where did the name Martin Luther come? In 1934, Michael King, his father and pastor from Georgia, attended a Baptist convention in Berlin, Germany. He was so impressed with what he learned about the reformer Martin Luther that he changed his name to Martin Luther King and went on to change his five year old son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Proposals to honor Dr. King’s memory by designating his January 15 birthday as a federal holiday were first introduced following his 1968 assassination. The House of Representatives came close to approving one of these bills in November 1979, when, under suspension of the rules, it voted 252-133 for a bill designating January 15 a federal holiday. That action, however, fell four votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority required for passage under suspension of the rules.

Following a growing public campaign to honor Dr. King, on August 2, 1983, the House revisited the issue, passing legislation making the third Monday in January a federal holiday in his honor, starting in 1986. Following a lengthy debate, the Senate passed the bill on October 19. In November 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating a federal holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. President Reagan’s signing of the legislation creating the holiday ended a 15-year debate over a national holiday honoring the civil rights leader. In remarks at the White House Rose Garden signing ceremony, President Reagan saluted the slain civil rights leader as a man who “stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul.”

Inauguration Day, January 20 every fourth year – On January 11, 1957, Inauguration Day became a permanent federal holiday in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area relieving congestion with the Inauguration. Signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the law established the new holiday and also provided that whenever Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, the following day would be considered a federal holiday. For several previous observances of the event, “inaugurations arrangements [had] been made for the Federal employees to be given a holiday in order that they [might] observe the historic and important activities associated with the inauguration.” With the passage of this statute, the necessity of acting upon this matter for each inauguration was eliminated.

Not Perfect but Still A Light to the World

Over the past 241 years, since the Declaration of Independence, our country has established its own form of government unique in the world and governed itself in a way to become a magnet to other peoples of the world. We started off in a revolutionary war to remove ourselves from tyranny, gone through a Civil War to form a more perfect union without slavery, fought two World Wars and numerous others to defend our self and others against oppressive governments, landed on the Moon, survived Presidential assassinations as a nation because of our form of government, and enacted numerous laws to enforce the creed of our Constitution with the Bill of Rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is only because of our form of government “by the people, for the people” coupled with The Golden Triangle of Freedom that it has survived the past centuries.

As succinctly explain in “A Free People’s Suicide” by Os Guiness, The Golden Triangle of Freedom is inherited by each generation of a virtuous people who have faith in Jesus Christ and have a passion to live a life of liberty and freedom from tyranny. When reduced to its most basic form, it says that freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist. If this were to ever happen, America will lose it’s greatness, uniqueness, and light to the rest of the world, never to materialize again.

So what’s your story?

~ By Robin O’Neill

For another view, read the rebuttal: Defining “Traditional Values” as Anything other than Abstract and Objective is Ludicrous


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