Holidays and Festivals

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HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS. Referring most broadly to periods of time free from work, the word "holiday" is derived from the word "holyday," and refers generally to special days of celebration and commemoration. These can be based on religion, politics, or regional, ethnic, or racial affiliation, and may or may not be officially recognized. For instance, neither Halloween (31 October) nor Valentine's Day (14 February) are official holidays in the sense that businesses and government agencies close down or that the government acknowledges them as special. However, both are widely celebrated in the United States. Other holidays receive government recognition at the local level (such as Evacuation Day, 17 March, in Suffolk County, Massachusetts), the state level (such as Juneteenth, 19 June, in Texas), or the national level (for example, Independence Day, 4 July).

Some holidays, such as Halloween and Valentine's Day, have been celebrated in Europe and America for centuries and a number of them are related to pre-Christian celebrations. Among those on the American calendar having ancient origins is Valentine's Day. Moreover, many distinctly American holidays were heavily influenced by preexisting festivals. The American Thanksgiving, for instance, commemorates a feast at Plymouth Colony in 1621 that was most likely inspired by British harvest home traditions. Other holidays, however, are created in America as social circumstances demand. Examples are Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and the African American holiday of Kwanzaa.

Holidays and Controversy

Holidays are frequently contested. The holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, for instance, was resisted by President Ronald Reagan and the officials of several states. Likewise, while Kwanzaa is regarded by its participants as reinforcing a sense of community, it is seen as divisive by those not participating.

Kwanzaa is celebrated from 26 December through 1 January. It was invented in the mid-1960s by Dr. Maulana Kerenga. Believing that African Americans were alienated from the Eurocentrism and the commercialism of Christmas, he adapted some African symbols and harvest traditions to construct a festival for African Americans. It is intended not to supplant, but to complement Christmas. Many families celebrate both. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday; rather, it speaks to ethnic and racial identity and tradition within the United States. In this sense Kwanzaa involves the cultural dynamics of identity politics, reflects the growing awareness of pluralism in the United States, and helps create that sense of pluralism as well. Invented to express ethnic and racial identity, the celebration is sometimes a site of racial debate and exclusion.

Similar dynamics can be seen in the increasingly national celebration of Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican celebration of a military victory. In the United States it has become something of a pan-Latino holiday. Some regard it as a conflation of a great variety of national and regional Latin American cultures and therefore as doing an injustice to their real differences. Similarly, traditional occasions such as the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) are growing in popularity in the United States. A manifestation of a culturally diverse population, it can also be seen as a standardization, since the Day of the Dead traditions presented in schools, museums, and cultural centers are largely based on phenomena found mostly in central and southern Mexico.

The adaptation of traditional celebrations in the United States indicates that they serve different purposes under different circumstances, and that meanings change with personal, social, and cultural contexts. Still, even the major, long-standing holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are sites of identity politics and contestation. For instance, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries African Americans, free and slave, held countercelebrations near the Fourth of July as an ironic commentary on the celebration of freedom in a land of slaves. Subsequently, Native Americans declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning.

Cyclical and Noncyclical Observances in Early America

Throughout history, peoples around the world have marked important occasions, significant times of year, and important points in the life cycle with rituals, festivals, and celebrations. For example, European colonists found elaborate ceremonial systems in place among Native Americans. They reflected the hunting, pastoral, and agricultural economies of the tribes. The American Thanksgiving is often thought to be modeled entirely on the British Harvest Home festival, but the Native peoples who taught the colonists how to grow food also influenced the 1621 celebratory meal with their own harvest celebration traditions. Their foods remain staples of the symbolic meal eaten every Thanksgiving.

Although harvest celebrations were allowed in early America, thanksgivings were actually days of fasting and prayer in recognition of nonrecurring events both in Puritan New England and elsewhere. President George Washington declared 26 November 1789 as a national thanksgiving holiday to thank God for victory in the War of Independence as much as to commemorate the Puritans of 1621. The holiday was not regularized as the fourth Thursday of every November until 1863.


The Puritans of Massachusetts believed that holidays were not biblically justified, and therefore did not observe them or allow others to do so. Christmas, for example, was banned in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681. It was in the middle colonies, where Anglicanism held sway, that Christmas developed. At first a rowdy occasion, Christmas was in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a carnivalesque celebration. During the nineteenth century, however, Christmas changed into a more demure and domestic family holiday. The Christmas tree tradition was borrowed from Germany. Santa Claus derived from European traditions of St. Nicholas, the British Father Christmas, and other mid-winter gift bearers. But the American Santa Claus also owes much to American authors such as Washington Irving, who described him in Knickerbocker Tales (1809); Clement Moore, who is said by some to have written "A Visit from St. Nicholas"; and cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Independence Day

Independence Day was celebrated from the day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted and read before the population of the colonies: 4 July 1776. Before independence and as late as 1800, British customary holidays such as Guy Fawkes Day were observed in New England, as were official commemorations in honor of the monarchy. The Fourth of July continued the bonfire and fireworks customs of those celebrations. Soon, it became an occasion for lengthy oratory, picnics, sports, and a reading of the Declaration.

African American Celebrations

African Americans celebrated these holidays by putting their own historically and culturally derived spin on them. Africans in bondage, for instance, were usually allowed Christmas or New Year's as a holiday. From all accounts, the celebrations were very much African in nature, with masquerading and musical performances. Such festivals were found throughout the African diaspora. Similarly, a Dutch Easter celebration in New York State known as Pinkster became an occasion for an African American celebration in the African-derived style. For African Americans as well as whites, the Fourth of July entailed speech making, feasting, and sports, but might be celebrated on a different day, perhaps in implicit protest. In addition, emancipation celebrations were held. The first of August recognized the abolition of slavery in Haiti in 1837. Since the Civil War, emancipation celebrations have been held at different times around the country. In Texas, 19 June, known as Juneteenth, is a legal holiday.

Other Holidays

The Civil War begat Memorial Day. The period between the Civil War and World War I gave rise to many other holidays, including Flag Day and Labor Day. Along with these official holidays, the United States hosts a wide variety of festivals that reflect its multiculturalism. Some ethnic celebrations, such as St. Patrick's Day, have become nationally celebrated; some, such as the Mexican Cinco de Mayo, are growing in popularity.


Cressy, David. Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Litwicki, Ellen M. America's Public Holidays, 1865–1920. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2000.

Santino, Jack. All around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

———. New Old-Fashioned Ways: Holidays and Popular Culture. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.


See alsoChristmas ; Flag Day ; Independence Day ; Kwanzaa ; Labor Day ; Memorial Day ; Thanksgiving Day .