Most American holidays honor events or individual instrumental in US history. Two are more universally celebrated: Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
There are 11 Congressionally-delegated federal holidays; see Title V of the United States Code (5 U.S.C. § 6103). Congressional holidays apply only to employees of the federal government, although they are often adopted by other institutions. The 1968 Uniform Holidays Bill (Public Law 90-363 was designed to insure federal employees had a three-day weekend on Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day. Otherwise, when a holiday falls on a Saturday, it is celebrated the prior day; when a holiday falls on a Sunday, it is celebrated the following day.
- New Year’s Day, January 1.
- Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the third Monday in January.
- Inauguration Day, January 20 in the year after a presidential election; the next is in 2009.
- Washington’s Birthday, the third Monday in February.
- Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.
- Independence Day, July 4.
- Labor Day, the first Monday in September.
- Columbus Day, the second Monday in October.
- Veterans Day, November 11.
- Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November.
- Christmas Day, December 25.
Local and state governments establish their own holiday schedules, as do businesses. Most US retailers are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
New Year's Day is a holiday in most countries.
Martin Luther King Day, celebrating the birth of the civil rights leader, is the most recent federal holiday. The movement for this recognition began shortly after his death in 1968 and was kick-started by a recording in 1980 from signer Stevie Wonder. In 1983, Congress passed the King Day Bill (338-90 in the House; 78-22 in the Senate). The law went into effect in 1986; in 2000, the day was finally celebrated in all 50 states.
In 1879, Congress declared that Washington's Birthday would be a federal holiday. In 1968, Congress shifted the commemoration date of 22 February to the third Monday in February.
Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, honors the nation's war dead and is the unofficial beginning of summer (long before the summer solstice). It was created to commemorate those who died during the War Between The States but has been expanded to include other wars. The official birth of the holiday took place in 1886 in Waterloo, NY. Its most iconic cultural event is the Indianapolis 500 car race, which has run on Memorial Day since 1911.
Independence Day has been celebrated on the 4th of July since 1777, and it commemorates the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776.
Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer. It used to also mark the return to school (K-12) but most schools begin in August today. It was designed to celebrate the achievements of workers (labor) in 1882. Its corollary in other countries is their May 1 Labor Day celebration.
Columbus Day recognizes the man traditionally credited with discovering the Americas. There are similar holidays in Latin American and Carribean countries. The first US Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in 1792. Since 1971, Columbus Day is commemorated on the second Monday in October; this is also Thanksgiving in Canada. Since 1966, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has held an annual telethon on this date.
Veterans Day honors all veterans of the United States armed forces and is also a state holiday in all 50 states. In other places around the world, this celebration is known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. This holiday is formally celebrated only by federal and state governments and banks.
Thanksgiving is celebrated the fourth Thursday in November. It's history begins with the first European settlers: in Virginia in 1619 and Massachusetts in 1621. The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by the Continental Congress in 1777. Then in 1789, George Washington created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the US government. However, it was not until Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanks in 1863 that the holiday became an annual one.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and is the only Congressionally-recognized religious holiday.