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How much do you know about our federal holidays?

J. H. Osborne • Dec 23, 2019 at 2:30 PM

Over the next 10 days, people across the United States will celebrate two holidays: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. But are they “national” holidays by law?

According to the United States Senate’s website:

• Since 1870, more than 1,100 different proposals have been introduced in Congress to establish permanent federal holidays. Only 11, however, have thus far been approved.

• Although these patriotic celebrations are frequently referred to as “national holidays,” legally they are only applicable to federal employees and the District of Columbia.

• Neither Congress nor the president has asserted the authority to declare a “national holiday” that would be binding on the 50 states. Each state individually decides what its legal holidays will be.

• Creating a holiday for federal employees does, however, affect each state in a variety of ways, including the delivery of mail, bank transactions, and business conducted with federal agencies.

• Congress, in several instances, declared federal holidays after being prompted by earlier action in a sizable number of states. In other instances, Congress took the lead. Almost without exception, approval of the 11 current federal holidays emanated from earlier unsuccessful efforts. Each was designed to emphasize particular aspects of the American heritage that molded the United States as a people and a nation.

First holidays

• When Congress enacted the first federal holiday law in 1870, there were approximately 5,300 federal employees working in Washington, D.C., and some 50,600 in other locations across the country.

• The distinction between federal employees working in the District of Columbia and those laboring elsewhere proved important because the initial holiday act was only applicable to the federal work force in the nation’s capital. Federal employees in other parts of the country apparently did not begin to receive holiday benefits until 1885.

New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day

• The act of June 28, 1870, which was apparently prompted by a memorial drafted by local “bankers and business men,” 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 [were] to be holidays within the District.” This legislation was drafted “to correspond with similar laws of States around the District,” and “in every State of the Union.’