The law of holidays

Federal holiday cheat sheet

So you’re sitting there writing up a paragraph or two for your family history and you figure, hey, it’d be nice to add a little bit of color.

Some event of significance to your ancestor took place on 22 February 1875.”Aha!” you think. “February 22nd is George Washington’s birthday!”

And you write up some few words about how that ancestor in that town might have celebrated that holiday.

A couple of paragraphs later, you come across another event of significance to another of your ancestors, and it occurred on the 30th of May 1887.

And that’s another “aha!” moment. “Memorial Day,” you think.

And you write up some few words about how that ancestor in that other town might have celebrated that holiday.

Um…

Not so fast.

Just because we celebrate holidays and do things one way today doesn’t mean our ancestors celebrated in the same way — or even acknowledged the same holidays — in the past.

In fact, there were no recognized federal holidays at all until 1870. Not New Year’s Day. Not the Fourth of July. Not Thanksgiving. Not even Christmas Day. Oh, most of the states recognized those as holidays,1 but no federal law did until the act of 28 June 1870 provided that New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas Day, and “any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fasting or thanksgiving shall be holidays within the District of Columbia.”2

Note the limit there — it was a holiday in the District of Columbia, not everywhere. And when Washington’s Birthday was added to the holiday list on 31 January 1879, it was also only in the District of Columbia.3 It wasn’t until 1885 that federal employees generally got those holidays off with pay.4

So before we all go off introducing little anachronisms into our family history, here’s your cheat sheet: when the holidays became federal holidays and how that changed over the years.

Date Holiday Statute
28 June 1870 New Year’s Day
Independence Day
Day of Thanksgiving
Christmas Day
D.C. only
16 Stat. 1685
31 January 1879 Washington’s Birthday
D.C. only
20 Stat. 2776
6 January 1885 New Year’s Day
Washington’s Birthday
Independence Day
Day of Thanksgiving
Christmas Day
All per diem workers
23 Stat. 5167
23 February 1888 Decoration (Memorial) Day 25 Stat. 3538
28 June 1894 Labor Day 28 Stat. 969
13 May 1938 Armistice Day
All federal employees
52 Stat. 35110
26 December 1941 Thanksgiving Day,
4th Thursday in November
55 Stat. 86211
1 June 1954 Veterans Day (renamed) 68 Stat. 16812
11 January 1957 Inauguration Day
All D.C. area federal employees
71 Stat. 313
28 June 1968 Monday holidays for
Washington’s Birthday,
Memorial Day,
Labor Day,
Columbus Day,
Veterans Day
82 Stat. 25014
18 September 1975 Veterans Day
back to 11 November
89 Stat. 47915
2 November 1983 Martin Luther King Jr. birthday 97 Stat. 91716

 
SOURCES
Image: Open Clip Art Library (zeimusu)

  1. Stephen W. Stathis, “Federal Holidays : Evolution and Application,” Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 8 Feb 1999; PDF version, Senate.gov (http://www.senate.gov/ : accessed 17 Feb 2013).
  2. “An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays within the District of Columbia,” 16 Stat. 168 (28 June 1870); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 17 Feb 2013).
  3. “An act to amend section nine hundred and ninety-three of the Revised Statutes of the United States for the District of Columbia, so as to make the twenty-second day of February a holiday within said District,” 20 Stat. 277 (31 Jan 1879).
  4. “Joint resolution (No. 5) providing for the payment of laborers in Government employ for certain holidays,” 23 Stat. 516 (6 Jan 1885).
  5. “An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays within the District of Columbia,” 16 Stat. 168 (28 June 1870).
  6. “An act to amend section nine hundred and ninety-three of the Revised Statutes of the United States for the District of Columbia, so as to make the twenty-second day of February a holiday within said District,” 20 Stat. 277 (31 Jan 1879).
  7. “Joint resolution (No. 5) providing for the payment of laborers in Government employ for certain holidays,” 23 Stat. 516 (6 Jan 1885).
  8. “An act making May thirtieth a holiday in the District of Columbia,” 25 Stat. 353 (23 Feb 1888).
  9. “An Act Making Labor Day a legal holiday,” 28 Stat. 96 (28 June 1894).
  10. “An Act Making the 11th day of November in each year a legal holiday,” 52 Stat. 351 (13 May 1938).
  11. “Joint Resolution Making the fourth Thursday in November a lega holiday”, 55 Stat. 862 (26 Dec 1941).
  12. “An Act To honor veterans on the 11th day of November of each year, a day dedicated to world peace,” 68 Stat. 168 (1 June 1954).
  13. “Joint Resolution Making Inauguration Day a legal holiday in the metropolitan area of the District of Columbia, and for other purposes,” 71 Stat. 3 (11 Jan 1957).
  14. “An Act To provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and for other purposes,” 82 Stat. 250 (28 June 1968).
  15. “An Act To redesignate November 11 of each year as Veterans Day and to make such day a legal public holiday,” 89 Stat. 479 (18 Sep 1975).
  16. “An Act To amend title 5, United States Code, to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a legal public holiday,” 97 Stat. 917 (2 Nov 1983).
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in General, Statutes. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The law of holidays

  1. Laura Prescott says:

    Before 1941, Thanksgiving was the last Thursday in November. Relying on a November 1900 newspaper article with a wedding announcement that a couple would be wed on Thanksgiving Day, I assumed they were married on 22 November 1900. Fortunately, the actual marriage record – and a quick history lesson – set me straight. They were married on 29 November 1900.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re absolutely right about 1900: It was set by annual Presidential Proclamation — you can see the text of the 1900 proclamation here. But the change from the last Thursday of the month was actually by FDR in 1939, a year where there were five Thursdays rather than the usual four; Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day. He also proclaimed the third Thursday in 1940 and 1941. In 1941, Congress stepped in and passed the fourth-Thursday law and Roosevelt signed it in December 1941 (so effective in 1942). By the way, Texas was the last hold-out for the last-Thursday when there were five Thursdays in November and celebrated it on the fifth Thursday in 1956.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>