Holidays, in their diverse forms, offer unique opportunities for reflection. From federal and religious observances to those that bring simple joy, each has its own significance. Consider moments like National Pie Day (Jan. 23) or National Sticky-Bun Day (Feb. 21), which may seem lighthearted, yet they provide occasions for people to share in common pleasures.
“In addition to the 11 annual federal holidays, Inauguration Day is a 12th holiday designated by Congress for observance every four years on January 20 following a U.S. presidential election,” says Dr. Robyn Lily Davis, associate professor and chairperson for the History Department at Millersville University.
President’s Day is a federal holiday but is officially designated as Washington’s Birthday since, the Congress, according to Davis, has never gotten around to changing the name formally. Washington’s birthday is the 5th federal holiday created in 1879. Originally established to honor George Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22, the holiday is now viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, both past and present.
Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras, while widely celebrated, are not official public holidays and do not include paid time off from work. Both events trace their origins to the Christian calendar. Valentine’s Day commemorates the martyrdom of St. Valentine, a third-century Roman figure who ministered to persecuted Christians and ultimately met his demise for his actions. Over time, his legacy became intertwined with the concept of courtly love, leading to the contemporary commercial celebration of love and romance observed globally.
Mardi Gras, translated from French as “Fat Tuesday,” is an annual celebration held on the day before Ash Wednesday. This tradition stems from the practice of indulging in foods that would be restricted during the subsequent Lenten season, a period of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. The festive atmosphere of Mardi Gras is characterized by vibrant parades, lively music and a spirit of revelry, offering a last opportunity for indulgence before the observance of Lent begins.
A little-known fact about holidays: Recently freed Black men and women held a 10,000-person parade in Charleston, SC, on May 1, 1865, to honor several hundred dead Union soldiers. The freedmen reburied these soldiers in proper graves (they had been placed in a mass grave) and decorated the burial ground with flowers. According to Davis, many historians like to think of this as the first Memorial Day celebration.