American Holidays

The Rio Grande Wild Turkey. Photo: U.S. Department of State

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 a 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 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”) public holidays, even though the President and Congress can legally designate holidays only for federal government employees.

In 1971, the dates of many federal holidays were officially moved to the nearest Monday by then-President Richard Nixon.

There are four holidays, which are not necessarily celebrated on Mondays: Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Christmas. When New Year’s Day, Independence Day, or Christmas falls on a Sunday, the next day is also a holiday. When one of these holidays falls on a Saturday, the previous day is also a holiday.

Federal government offices, including the post office, are always closed on all federal legal holidays. Schools and businesses close on major holidays like Independence Day and Christmas but may not always be closed, for example, on George Washington’s birthday or Veterans’ Day.

The federal government proclaims ten holidays per year.

On January first, Americans visit friends, relatives, and neighbors. There is plenty to eat and drink when you just drop in to wish your loved ones and friends the best for the year ahead. Many families and friends watch television together enjoying the Tournament of Roses parade preceding the Rose Bowl football game in Pasadena California. The parade was started in 1887, when a zoologist who had seen one in France suggested to the Valley Hunt Club in Pasadena, California that they sponsor “an artistic celebration of the ripening of the oranges” at the beginning of the year. At first the parade was a line of decorated horse-drawn private carriages. Athletic events were held in the afternoon, and in the evening, a ball where winners of the events of the day and the most beautiful float were announced. In later years colleges began to compete in football games on New Year’s Day, and these gradually replaced other athletic competitions. The parade of floats grew longer from year to year, and flower decorations grew more elaborate.

The theme of the Tournament of Roses varies from year to year. Today the parade is usually more than five miles long with thousands of participants in the marching bands and on the floats. City officials ride in the cars pulling the floats. A celebrity is chosen to be the grand marshal, or official master of ceremonies. The queen of the tournament rides on a special float which is always the most elaborate one of the parade, being made from more than 250,000 flowers. Spectators and participants alike enjoy the pageantry associated with the occasion. Preparation for next year’s Tournament of Roses begins on January 2.

In the warmer regions all around the country there are other games whose names are characteristic of the state. People watch the Orange Bowl game in Florida, the Cotton Bowl in Texas, and the Sugar Bowl in Louisiana. In most cultures, people promise to better themselves in the following year. Americans have inherited the tradition and even write down their New Year’s resolutions. Whatever the resolution, most of them are broken or forgotten by February!

On Monday, January 20, 1986, in cities and towns across the country people celebrated the first official Martin Luther King Day, the only federal holiday commemorating an African-American. A ceremony which took place at an old railroad depot in Atlanta Georgia was especially emotional. Hundreds had gathered to sing and to march. Many were the same people who, in 1965, had marched for fifty miles between two cities in the state of Alabama to protest segregation and discrimination of black Americans.

All through the 1980’s, controversy surrounded the idea of a Martin Luther King Day. Congressmen and citizens had petitioned the President to make January 15, Martin Luther King’s birthday, a federal legal holiday. Others wanted to make the holiday on the day he died, while some people did not want to have any holiday at all.

January 15 had been observed as a legal holiday for many years in 27 states and Washington, D.C. Finally, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday in January a federal legal holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Schools, offices and federal agencies are closed for the holiday. On Monday there are quiet memorial services as well as elaborate ceremonies in honor of Dr. King. On the preceding Sunday, ministers of all religions give special sermons reminding everyone of Dr. King’s lifelong work for peace. All weekend, popular radio stations play songs and speeches that tell the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Television channels broadcast special programs with filmed highlights of Dr. King’s life and times.

“I Have a Dream”

“We will not resort to violence.
We will not degrade ourselves with hatred.
Love will be returned with hate.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was December, 1955, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had just received his doctorate degree in theology. He had moved to Montgomery, Alabama to preach at a Baptist church. He saw there, as in many other southern states, that African-Americans had to ride in the back of public buses. Dr. King knew that this law violated the rights of every African-American. He organized and led a boycott of the public buses in the city of Montgomery. Any person, black or white, who was against segregation refused to use public transportation. Those people who boycotted were threatened or attacked by other people, or even arrested or jailed by the police. After one year of boycotting the bus system, the Supreme Court declared that the Alabama state segregation law was unconstitutional.

African-Americans were not only segregated on buses throughout the south. Equal housing was denied to them, and seating in many hotels and restaurants was refused.

In 1957, Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and moved back to his home town of Atlanta, Georgia. This was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following, he continued to organize non-violent protests against unequal treatment of African-American people. His philosophy remained peaceful, and he constantly reminded his followers that their fight would be victorious if they did not resort to bloodshed. Nonetheless, he and his demonstrators were often threatened and attacked. Demonstrations which began peacefully often ended up in violence, and he and many others were often arrested.

On August 23, 1963, a crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. and marched to the Capitol Building to support the passing of laws that guaranteed every American equal civil rights. Martin Luther King was at the front of the “March on Washington.” On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, Dr. King delivered a speech that was later entitled “I Have a Dream.” The March was one of the largest gatherings of black and white people that the nation’s capital had ever seen… and no violence occurred.

One year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. It was not the first law of civil rights for Americans, but it was the most thorough and effective. The act guaranteed equal rights in housing, public facilities, voting, and public schools. Everyone would have impartial hearings and jury trials. A civil rights commission would ensure that these laws were enforced. Martin Luther King and thousands of others now knew that they had not struggled in vain.

In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while he was leading a workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. White people and black people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were shocked and angry. The world grieved the loss of this man of peace.

Until 1971, both February 12 and February 22 were observed as federal public holidays to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22).

In 1971 President Richard Nixon proclaimed one single federal public holiday, the Presidents’ Day, to be observed on the 3rd Monday of February, honoring all past presidents of the United States of America.

It was 1866, and the United States was recovering from the long and bloody Civil War between the North and the South. Surviving soldiers came home, some with missing limbs, and all with stories to tell. Henry Welles, a drugstore owner in Waterloo, New York, heard the stories and had an idea. He suggested that all the shops in town close for one day to honor the soldiers who were buried in the Waterloo cemetery . On the morning of May 5, the townspeople placed flowers, wreaths and crosses on the graves of the Northern soldiers in the cemetery. At about the same time, General Jonathan Logan planned another ceremony, this time for the soldiers who survived the war. He led the veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades’ graves with flags. It was not a happy celebration, but a memorial. The townspeople called it Decoration Day.

In General Logan’s proclamation of Memorial Day, he declared: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

The two ceremonies were joined in 1868, and northern states commemorated the day on May 30. Children read poems and sang civil war songs, and veterans came to school wearing their medals and uniforms to tell students about the Civil War. Then the veterans marched through their home towns, followed by the townspeople to the cemetery. They decorated graves and took photographs of soldiers next to American flags. Rifles were shot in the air as a salute to the northern soldiers who had given their lives to keep the United States together.

In 1882, the name was changed to Memorial Day, and soldiers who had died in previous wars were honored as well. In the northern United States, it was designated a legal holiday. The southern states commemorated their war dead on different days. In 1971, along with other holidays, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a national 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.

Memorial Day is not limited to honor only those Americans from the armed forces. It is also a day for personal remembrance. Families and individuals honor the memories of their loved ones who have died. Church services, visits to the cemetery, flowers on graves, or even silent tribute mark the day with dignity and solemnity. It is a day of reflection. However, to many Americans the day also signals the beginning of summer with a three-day weekend to spend at the beach, in the mountains, or at home relaxing.

In Waterloo, New York, the origin has not been lost, and in fact the meaning has become even more special. President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, 100 years after the first commemoration. Every May 30, townspeople still walk to the cemeteries and hold memorial services. They decorate the graves with flags and flowers. Then they walk back to the park in the middle of town. In the middle of the park, near a monument dedicated to soldiers, sailors and marines, the Gettysburg address is read, followed by General Logan’s Order # 11 designating Decoration Day. The village choirs sing patriotic songs. In the evening, school children take part in a parade.

Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is the nation’s largest national cemetery. Not only are members of the armed forces buried here; astronauts, explorers and other distinguished Americans have all been honored with a special place here. President John Kennedy is buried in a spot overlooking Washington, D.C..

Here in the early hours of the Friday morning before Memorial Day, soldiers of the Third U.S. infantry walk along the rows of headstones. Each soldier stops at a headstone, reaches to a bundle of flags he is carrying, pulls one out and pushes it into the ground. These soldiers are part of a special regiment: The Old Guard. Most consider it a privilege to place flags on the more than two hundred thousand graves of soldiers who served in the war or who died in it. “They have done their job,” said one soldier, “and now it’s my turn to do mine.”

It is an equal honor to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier all year. There are actually four soldiers buried in this spot: the unknown soldiers of the two World Wars, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam War. Each soldier represents all of those who gave their lives in the modern wars. Soldiers from the Army’s Third Infantry guard the tomb twenty- four hours a day. Wreath-laying ceremonies take place all through the year, and people from all over the world come to watch the changing of the guard. On another hill of Arlington Cemetery, there is a mass grave of unidentified soldiers from the Civil War.

On Memorial Day, the President or Vice President of the United States gives a speech and lays a wreath on the tombs. Members of the armed forces shoot a rifle salute in the air. Veterans and families come to lay their own wreaths and say prayers. There is a chance that one of the soldiers buried here is a father, son, brother or friend.

“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. ” – words written on the Liberty Bell.

By the middle of the 1700s, the thirteen colonies that made up part of England’s empire in the New World were finding it difficult to be ruled by a king 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. They were tired of the taxes imposed upon them. But independence was a gradual and painful process. The colonists could not forget that they were British citizens, and that they owed allegiance to King George III.

A “tea party” and a Massacre” were two events that hurried destiny. Along with general unrest, these events united the colonists. In 1770 a tea company in India, owned by England, was losing money. To save the company, England levied a tax on tea sold in the colonies. Partly as a joke, Samuel Adams and other Bostonians dressed up as Indians and dumped a cargo of India Company Tea into the Massachusetts Bay. King George did not think it was funny, nor did he lift the tax on tea. In 1773, also in the Boston harbor, British soldiers were jeered and stoned by colonists who thought the soldiers had been sent to watch them. The soldiers fired into the crowd and killed a few citizens. The colonists exaggerated the number killed and called it a massacre.

Virginia took the first step toward independence by voting to set up a committee to represent the colonies. This First Continental Congress met in September of 1774. They drew up a list of grievances against the crown which became the first draft of a document that would formally separate the colonies from England. George Washington took command of the Continental Army, and began fighting the British in Massachusetts. For the next eight years, colonists fought fervently in the Revolutionary War.

In the meantime, a war of words was being waged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress presented a second draft of the list of grievances; and John Hancock, the president of the Second Continental Congress, was the first to sign. The document, called the Declaration of Independence, was treasonous against the crown; and the fifty-six men who signed it were in danger of being executed.

Independence Day is celebrated on July 4 because that is the day when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. From July 8, 1776, until the next month, the document was read publicly and people celebrated whenever they heard it. The next year, in Philadelphia, bells rang and ships fired guns; candles and firecrackers were lighted. But the War of Independence dragged on until 1783, and in that year, Independence Day was made an official holiday.

A lawyer named John Adams – the first Vice President, and the Second President of the United States – was one of the members of the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. He wrote to his wife, “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival… It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”

John Adams may have predicted the later Independence Day celebrations, or perhaps he started traditions with his words. Every July fourth, Americans have a holiday from work. Communities have day-long picnics with favorite foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, baked beans, and all the fixings. The afternoon activities would not be complete without lively music, a friendly baseball game, three-legged races, and a pie-eating or watermelon-eating contests. Some cities have parades with people dressed as the original founding fathers who march in parades to the music of high school bands. At dusk, people in towns and cities gather to watch the fireworks display. Wherever Americans are around the globe, they will get together for a traditional 4th of July celebration!

The Declaration of Independence was first read in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today, at the Freedom Festival at Independence Hall, costumed Americans re-enact historical scenes, and read the Declaration of Independence for the crowd. In Flagstaff, Arizona, American Indians hold a three-day pow-wow around the Fourth of July, with a rodeo and dancing. In Lititz, Pennsylvania, hundreds of candles that were made during the year are lighted in the park at night and floated in the water while a “Queen of Candles” is chosen. The ship U.S.S. John Kennedy comes in full sail to Boston Harbor in Massachusetts on the Fourth of July, and the Boston Pops Orchestra plays a musical concert of patriotic songs, as more than 150,000 people watch fireworks burst over the water.

The Fireworks Family

New Castle, Pennsylvania, is home to the Vitale Fireworks Display Company, responsible for more than one thousand fireworks shows every year. In 1922 Constantino Vitale brought his expertise at making fireworks from Italy to the United States. He passed his secrets on to his four sons, and since then have been making Americans exclaim “ooohhh” and “aaahhhh” at the lighted colors in the sky on July 4 and other occasions. “It’s like putting on a ballet show except that the dancers were above, painting the sky,” says Vitale’s granddaughter. “Seeing that spectacular display in the sky made me really love the country.”

The sight and sound of a ringing bell represents freedom to most Americans, because of the Liberty Bell that rang in Philadelphia when a new country was born.

In 1752 the new bell arrived safely from England, but at the first blow from a hammer to test it, it cracked. Not wanting to delay by returning the bell to England, the officials ordered bell founders in Philadelphia to remedy the fault. Two times it was recast before it was finally ready.

On July 8, 1776, the bell rang to mark the occasion of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. On April 16, 1783, it proudly announced the proclamation of peace and the newly won independence of the United States of America.

At every event of national importance, the Liberty Bell joined its harmonious tones to the general acclaim: In 1789, the election of George Washington; in 1797, the election of John Adams; in 1799, the death of Washington; and in 1801, the election of Thomas Jefferson. On July 4, 1826, the bell was nearly three quarters of a century old, and the nation whose birth it had helped to announce was now a lusty youngster of 50. Joyous indeed was the bell’s sound on that occasion. Then, on July 8, 1835, while tolling for the funeral procession of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the great bell cracked.

Fearing that the crack would eventually destroy the historic bell, officials ordered it taken down from the tower. It was after this that the Liberty Bell received its name. Since then, the bell has been on display but has never rung. In fact, no one living knows the voice of the Liberty Bell, for it has never spoken since 1835. The crack which appeared on that occasion is prevented from widening by a mechanical device, called a spider, installed inside the bell.

A few years ago the bell foundry in London that originally cast the great bell made a friendly proposal – to ship the bell back to England, melt it, and recast it at no cost to the United States. The keepers of the bell considered the offer very seriously before giving an answer. Then they made a decision. The cracked liberty bell is a cherished symbol of America’s struggle for freedom. Just as a man’s facial lines and creases are a visible sign of the stress and strain he has survived, so the crack in the Liberty Bell serves to remind Americans that their forefathers did not win liberty for their country and its people without strain and stress – and even extensive fractures. Therefore, on behalf of the American people, the officials thanked the London foundry for its generous offer, but refused, adding: “We like the bell as it is, crack and all. It is an important part of our heritage.”

Yankee Doodle

Strangely, this patriotic song has derogatory origins. The music and words go back to 15th century Holland, as a harvesting song that began, “Yanker dudel doodle down.” In England, the tune was used for a nursery rhyme, and later a song making fun of Puritan church leader Oliver Cromwell, because “Yankee” might be a mispronunciation of the word “English,” and “doodle” refers to a dumb person. But it was a British surgeon, Richard Schuckburgh, who wrote the words which ridiculed the ragtag colonists fighting in the French and Indian War. Soon after, the British troops used the song to make fun of the colonists in the Revolutionary War. Yet it became the colonists’ rallying anthem for that war.

America, the Beautiful

Every so often a movement is started to make “America the Beautiful” the national anthem, instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” largely because it was not written as a result of a war. The tune is easier to sing, and the whole country is praised, not only the flag. Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, rode in a horse-drawn wagon up Pike’s Peak, a mountaintop in Colorado in 1893. She saw a view of the mountains that few people saw in those days and was inspired by her glimpse of the “spacious skies” and “purple mountains” to write a poem, which became the first verse of the song. The public loved the poem, and Miss Bates was encouraged to set it to music She chose the music of a hymn by Samuel Ward. The words and music travelled around the world, and today Mexico, Canada and Australia sing it with their own countries’ names instead of “America.”

Eleven-year-old Peter McGuire sold papers on the street in New York City. He shined shoes and cleaned stores, and later ran errands. It was 1863 and his father, a poor Irish immigrant, had just enlisted to fight in the Civil War. Peter had to help support his mother and six brothers and sisters.

Many immigrants settled in New York City in the nineteenth century. They found that living conditions were not as wonderful as they had dreamed. Often there were six families crowded into a house made for one family. Thousands of children had to go to work. Working conditions were even worse. Immigrant men, women and children worked in factories for ten to twelve hours a day, stopping only for a short time to eat. They came to work even if they were tired or sick, because if they didn’t, they might be fired. Thousands of people were waiting to take their places.

When Peter was seventeen, he began an apprenticeship in a piano shop. This job was better than his others, because he was learning a trade, but he still worked long hours with low pay. At night he went to meetings and classes in economics and social issues of the day. One of the main issues of concern pertained to labor conditions. Workers were tired of long hours, low pay and uncertain jobs. They spoke of organizing themselves into a union of laborers to improve their working conditions. In the spring of 1872, Peter McGuire and 100,000 workers went on strike and marched through the streets, demanding a decrease in the long working day.

This event convinced Peter that an organized labor movement was important for the future of workers’ rights. He spent the next year speaking to crowds of workers and unemployed people, lobbying the city government for jobs and relief money. It was not an easy road for Peter McGuire. He became known as a “disturber of the public peace.” The city government ignored his demands. Peter himself could not find a job in his trade. He began to travel up and down the east coast to speak to laborers about unionizing. In 1881, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and began to organize carpenters there. He organized a convention of carpenters in Chicago, and it was here that a national union of carpenters was founded. He became General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

The idea of organizing workers according to their trades spread around the country. Factory workers, dock workers, and toolmakers all began to demand and get their rights to an eight- hour workday, a secure job and a future in their trades. Peter McGuire and laborers in other cities planned a holiday for workers on the first Monday in September, halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

On September 5, 1882 the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City. Twenty thousand workers marched in a parade up Broadway. They carried banners that read “LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH,” and “EIGHT HOURS FOR WORK; EIGHT HOURS FOR REST; EIGHT HOURS FOR RECREATION!” After the parade, there were picnics all around the city. Workers and celebrants ate Irish stew, homemade bread and apple pie. At night, fireworks were set off. Within the next few years, the idea spread from coast to coast, and all states celebrated Labor Day. In 1894, Congress voted it a national holiday.

Today we celebrate Labor Day with a little less fanfare on the first Monday of September. Some cities have parades and community picnics. Many politicians “kick off’ their political campaigns by holding rallies on the holiday. Most Americans consider Labor Day the end of the summer, and the beaches and other popular resort areas are packed with people enjoying one last three-day weekend.

Today we take for granted that the world is round. In the fifteenth century, however, most people believed the world was flat. They thought that monsters or a trip over the edge of the earth waited for anybody who sailed outside the limits of known territory. People laughed at or jailed others who dared think that the world was in the shape of a globe.

There were educated persons, however, who reasoned that the world must be round. An Italian named Christopher Columbus was bold enough to push this notion, and ask for money to explore the seas, and find what he thought would be the other hemisphere of the earth. Portugal, Italy and England refused to support such a venture.

At that time, spice merchants were looking for an easier route to Asia. They travelled south past Africa, around the Cape Horn, and continued eastward. Christopher Columbus convinced Queen Isabella of Spain that it would be easier to sail directly west and find the rich treasures of India and Asia. A new route would be found, he said, and possible new lands for Spain.

Columbus first asked Queen Isabella for help in 1486, but it was years before she agreed… provided that he conquer some of the islands and mainland for Spain. Columbus would also be given the title of “Admiral of All the Ocean Seas,” and receive one-tenth of the riches that came from any of his discoveries.

Finally, on August 3, 1492, he and ninety men set sail on the flagship Santa Maria. Two other ships, the Nina and the Pinta, came with him. They sailed west. Three long months went by. His men became tired and sick, and threatened to turn the ships back. Columbus encouraged them, certain that they would find the spice trail to the East. On October 11th, ten o’clock at night, Columbus saw a light. The Pinta kept sailing, and reported that the light was, in fact, land. The next morning at dawn they landed.

Christopher Columbus and his crew had expected to see people native to India, or be taken to see the great leader Khan. They called the first people they saw “Indians.” They had gone ashore in their best clothes, knelt and praised God for arriving safely. From the “Indians” they learned that the island was called Guanahani. Columbus christened it San Salvador and claimed it immediately for Spain. When they landed on the island that is now Cuba, they thought they were in Japan. After three subsequent voyages, Columbus was still unenlightened. He died a rich and famous man, but he never knew that he discovered lands that few people had imagined were there.

Columbus had stopped at what are now the Caribbean Islands, either Watling Island, Grand Turk Island, or Samana Cay. In 1926, Watling Island was renamed San Salvador and acknowledged as the first land in the New World. Recently, however, some people have begun to dispute the claim. Three men from Miami, Florida have started a movement to recognize Conception Island as the one that Columbus and his men first sighted and landed on. The controversy has not yet been resolved.

Few celebrations marked the discovery until hundreds of years later. The continent was not even named after Columbus, but an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. In 1792, a ceremony was held in New York honoring Columbus, and a monument was dedicated to him. Soon after that, the city of Washington was officially named the District of Columbia and became the capital of the United States. In 1892, a statue of Columbus was raised at the beginning of Columbus Avenue in New York City. At the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago that year, replicas of Columbus’s three ships were displayed.

Americans might not have a Columbus Day if Christopher Columbus had not been born in Italy. Out of pride for their native son, the Italian population of New York City organised the first celebration of the discovery of America on October 12, 1866. The next year, more Italian organisations in other cities held banquets, parades and dances on that date. In 1869, when Italians of San Francisco celebrated October 12, they called it Columbus Day.

In 1905, Colorado became the first state to observe a Columbus Day. Over the next few decades other states followed. In 1937, then- President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed every October 12 as Columbus Day. Since 1971, it has been celebrated on the second Monday in October.

Although it is generally accepted that Christopher Columbus was the first European to have discovered the New World of the Americas, there is still some controversy over this claim. Some researchers and proponents of other explorers attribute the first sightings to the early Scandinavian Vikings or the voyages of Irish missionaries which predate the Columbus visit in 1492. The controversy may never be fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the Columbus discovery.

In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the world rejoiced and celebrated. After four years of bitter war, an armistice was signed. The “war to end all wars” was over.

November 11 was set aside as Armistice Day in the United States, to remember the sacrifices that men and women made during the war in order to ensure a lasting peace. On Armistice Day, soldiers who survived the war marched in a parade through their home towns. Politicians and veteran officers gave speeches and held ceremonies of thanks for the peace they had won.

Congress voted Armistice Day a legal holiday in 1938, twenty years after the war ended. But Americans realized that the previous war would not be the last one. World War II began the following year, and nations great and small again participated in a bloody struggle. After the Second World War, Armistice Day continued to be observed on November 11.

In 1953 townspeople in Emporia, Kansas called the holiday Veterans’ Day in gratitude to the veterans in their town. Soon after, Congress passed a bill introduced by a Kansas congressman renaming the national holiday to Veterans’ Day. Americans still give thanks for peace on Veterans’ Day.

There are ceremonies and speeches, and at 11:00 in the morning, most Americans observe a moment of silence, remembering those who fought for peace.

After the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, the emphasis on holiday activities has shifted. There are fewer military parades and ceremonies. Veterans gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. to place gifts and stand quiet vigil at the names of their friends and relatives who fell in the Vietnam War. Families who have lost sons and daughters in wars turn their thoughts more toward peace and the avoidance of future wars.

Veterans of military service have organized support groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. On Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, these groups raise funds for their charitable activities by selling paper poppies made by disabled veterans. This bright red wildflower became a symbol of World War I after a bloody battle in a field of poppies called Flanders Field in Belgium.

Thanksgiving Day is the fourth Thursday in November, but many Americans take a day of vacation on the following Friday to make a four-day weekend, during which they may travel long distances to visit family and friends. The holiday dates back to 1621, the year after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, determined to practice their dissenting religion without interference.

After a rough winter, in which about half of them died, they turned for help to neighboring Indians, who taught them how to plant corn and other crops. The next fall’s bountiful harvest inspired the Pilgrims to give thanks by holding a feast. The Thanksgiving feast became a national tradition — not only because so many other Americans have found prosperity but also because the Pilgrims’ sacrifices for their freedom still captivate the imagination. To this day, Thanksgiving dinner almost always includes some of the foods served at the first feast: roast turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, pumpkin pie. Before the meal begins, families or friends usually pause to give thanks for their blessings, including the joy of being united for the occasion.

Christmas is a joyful religious holiday when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christmas story comes from the Bible. An angel appeared to shepherds and told them that a Savior had been born to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. Three Wise Men from the East (the Magi) followed a wondrous star which led them to the baby Jesus to whom they paid homage and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

To people all over the world, Christmas is a season of giving and receiving presents. In Scandinavian and other European countries, Father Christmas, or Saint Nicholas, comes into houses in the night and leaves gifts for the children. Saint Nicholas is represented as a kindly man with a red cloak and long white beard. He visited houses and left gifts, bringing people happiness in the coldest months of the year. Another character, the Norse God Odin, rode on a magical flying horse across the sky in the winter to reward people with gifts These different legends passed across the ages to make the presentday Santa Claus.

Immigrant settlers brought Father Christmas to the United States. Father Christmas’s name was gradually changed to Santa Claus, from the Dutch name for Father Christmas, which is Sinter Claas. Although he has origins in Norse and pre-Christian mythology, Santa Claus took shape in the United States. Americans gave Santa Claus a white beard, dressed him in a red suit and made him a cheery old gentleman with red cheeks and a twinkle in his eye.

American children believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole with his wife. All year he lists the names of children, both those who have been good and those who have been bad. He decides what presents to give to the good children. He oversees the manufacturing and wrapping of the presents by his helpers.

Santa Claus supposedly gets his list of toys from the millions of children who write to him at the North Pole. Children also find Santa Claus at shopping malls across the country. They sit on his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. Of course, their parents are probably nearby listening in as well.

On December 24, Christmas Eve, Santa hitches his eight reindeer to a sleigh, and loads it with presents. The reindeer pull him and his sleigh through the sky to deliver presents to children all around the world, that is, if they had been good all year.

Several American towns maintain the spirit of Santa Claus. The New England state of Connecticut has a Christmas village where “Santa” and his elves give out gifts. In New York, a small town called the North Pole was designed for Santa Claus. There is a post office, a church and a blacksmith shop, to repair the shoes of the reindeer.

Santa Claus exists only in our imaginations. But he, Saint Nicholas, and Father Christmas are spirits of giving. Christmas has been associated with gift giving since the Wise Men brought gifts to welcome the newborn Jesus Christ.

In anticipation of Santa’s visit, American children listen to their parents read “The Night Before Christmas” before they go to bed on Christmas Eve. Clement Moore wrote the poem in 1823.

Christmas Cards

Another important custom of Christmas is to send and receive Christmas cards, which are meant to help express the sentiment of the season. Some are religious in nature; others are more secular. Americans begin sending Christmas cards early in December to friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. The post office advises customers to mail early in the season and avoid the Christmas rush. Some people heed the advice; others wait until the last minute and then are upset when their loved ones have not received the greeting card or the present which they sent.

It seems that nearly every family has its own unique Christmas observances. Many people are especially proud of Christmas traditions brought to the United States from their countries of origin. The wonderful diversity of foods, music and songs, prayers and stories, all make Christmas the holiday of holidays in the United States.

One custom in Texas and other parts of the American Southwest warmly welcomes Christmas visitors. People cut designs out of the sides of paper bags. Then they put enough sand in the bottom of the bag to hold a candle. They line their walkways with the bags, and light the candles after dark. Guests can easily find their friend’s walkway and follow the candles up to the door.

In San Antonio, these “luminaries” are placed all along the River Walk, a paved walkway alongside the San Antonio River, and an old custom called “Las Posadas” is acted out.

“Las Posadas” represents the journey that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Jerusalem on a winter night 2000 years ago. Mary was about to give birth to Jesus, on their way to be counted in the census. The inns were full and the only place they could find to rest was a barn. Jesus was born there and was placed in a manger, or wooden bin for feeding animals.

Two young people are chosen to play the roles of Mary and Joseph. They follow the luminaries up to a house and knock on the door. Joseph asks the owner if they can stay there for the night. The owner refuses to let them in, because the house is full. They knock at several more houses until finally someone lets them come in to stay the night. The house where the couple is invited was chosen before the celebration, and has a doll in a manger, representing Jesus. When the couple arrives at the house, they and the people who have followed sing Christmas carols and eat the food provided by the “innkeeper.”

Home for the Holidays

Going home for Christmas is a most cherished tradition of the holiday season. No matter where you may be the rest of the year, being at “home” with your family and friends for Christmas is “a must.” The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are the busiest times of the year at airports, train stations, and bus depots. It seems that all America is on the move and Americans are on their way to spend the holidays with their loved ones.

This means that the house will be full of cousins, aunts and uncles that might not see each other during the year. Everyone joins in to help in the preparation of the festivities. Some family members go to choose a Christmas tree to buy and bring home, others decorate the house, or wrap presents. And of course, each household needs to make lots of food!

On Christmas Eve, there are evening church services which everyone attends. Attention is focused on the nativity scene, while all join in singing carols. On Christmas Day, there are other religious ceremonies at churches which families attend before they make their rounds to visit friends and relatives.

The Christmas table looks much like a Thanksgiving feast of turkey or ham, potatoes and pie. No Christmas is complete without lots of desserts, and nothing symbolizes Christmas more than baked breads and cookies hot from the oven. Many American traditional desserts, like other Christmas customs, were started long ago in other parts of the world. Guests bring English fruit cake or plum pudding as presents to their hosts. “Crostoli,” a fried bread spiced with orange peel, is made in Italian – American communities. As an ending for the Christmas banquet, Americans of German background eat “Pfeffernuesse,” a bread full of sweet spices. Doughnuts are a holiday offering in many Ukrainian-American homes. Norwegian “Berlinerkranser” is a wreath-shaped cookie. Dozens are made, but few are left by Christmas morning! Candy doesn’t remain for long either, during the holiday weeks. Hard candies such as peppermint candy canes and curly green and red ribbon candy are traditional gifts and goodies.

At Christmas Eve gatherings, adults drink eggnog, a drink made of cream, milk, sugar, beaten eggs and brandy or rum. Plenty of eggnog or hot cocoa is on hand in colder climates for carolers, or people who go from house to house to sing Christmas carols to their neighbors.

Long ago, each child hung a stocking, or sock, over the fireplace. Santa entered down the chimney and left candy and presents inside the socks for the children. Today the tradition is carried on, but the socks are now large red sock-shaped fabric bags still called stockings.

Each child can’t wait to open his or her eyes to see what Santa has left in the stocking. Giving gifts is a Christmas tradition. However, in recent years, more and more people have complained that Christmas is too commercialized, especially in large cities. Store owners begin advertising and decorating very early in hopes of selling more goods. Children demand more and more from Santa Claus because manufacturers and retailers saturate television with advertising. Some people believe that the origin of Christmas has been lost. Commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ is the very reason for Christmas and should be central to the celebration.

Every year human interest newspaper articles remind readers of the origin of Christmas. Shelters for the homeless and hungry appeal through the newspaper to send money or gifts to those who are less fortunate. Members of organizations such as the Salvation Army dress up as Santa Claus and stand on the sidewalks outside stores to collect money for their own soup kitchens. City police forces supervise a “Toys for Tots” donation, in which people contribute new or used toys for children in hospitals and orphanages. Employees give a small part of their paychecks as a donation to a favorite charity. Such groups and organizations try to emphasize the true message of Christmas: To share what you have with others.