New Year's Day - January 1: Official holiday for schools, offices, and stores. New Year's Eve, December 31, is more important to Americans than New Year's Day itself. Everyone gathers with family and friends to "ring out the old and ring in the new," an expression that reflects the old custom of ringing church bells to greet the new year.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday - January 15: Official holiday celebrated in honor of the slain Civil Rights leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized and led the civil-rights movement in America during the 1960s.
Lincoln's Birthday - February 12: Official holiday in many states; often celebrated in conjunction with George Washington's birthday or "Presidents Day." Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War (1861-1865), a period that had a profound effect on the history of the nation. Believing that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," Lincoln acted to free the slaves and bring the seceded states back into the union.
Valentines Day - February 14: Not an official holiday. A Lover's holiday celebrated by sending cards and giving candy or flowers.
Washington's Birthday - February 22 (but celebrated on the third Monday in February): Official holiday. Commemorates the birthday of George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Army that freed America from the colonial rule of England. Washington was also the first president of the United States.
Saint Patrick's Day - March 17: Not an official holiday. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and this holiday was brought to America by Irish immigrants. People celebrate this holiday by wearing something green and getting together with friends to party and sing Irish folk songs.
April Fool's Day - April 1: Not an official holiday. As in many other countries, this day is marked by the custom of playing practical jokes on friends and colleagues.
Easter - a Sunday in March or April: Not an official holiday. A religious holiday for Christians who believe that on this day Christ rose from the dead. Many folk traditions are now connected with Easter, including the decoration of brightly colored eggs and giving gifts to children.
Mother's Day - second Sunday in May: Not an official holiday. On this day Americans honor their mothers by sending flowers, buying small gifts, and taking their mothers out to eat so that they don't have to cook or do work around the house.
Father's Day - third Sunday in June: Not an official holiday. Fathers are honored on this day. Children give them cards and gifts.
Memorial Day - last Monday in May: Official holiday. Memorial Day is the day on which Americans remember those who died in military service to their country. Many families visit graves and decorate them with flowers. The day is also marked with patriotic parades. This day is considered the beginning of the summer season.
Independence Day - July 4: Official holiday. Independence Day commemorates the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. The holiday is celebrated all over the country with picnics, political speeches, and community get-togethers that culminate in fireworks displays.
Labor Day - first Monday in September: Official holiday. This holiday was established in recognition of the labor movement's contribution to the productivity of the country. This day is the last holiday of the summer season and is celebrated with picnics and other outings.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - late September/early October: Rosh Hashanah, commemorating the creating of the world, is the first of the Ten Days of Penitence, which end with Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish holidays. For Rosh Hashanah, families gather for a feast in which an apple is dipped in honey to express hope for a sweet year ahead. In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a day of judgment; on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews ask forgiveness from those they may have wronged. The keynotes of the holiday are fasting and a collective confession, repeated several times throughout the day.
Halloween - October 31 : Not an official holiday. This was originally a religious holiday, but its religious character has been lost in the United States, and it is now celebrated mostly as a children's holiday. Traditions include carving out pumpkins with funny faces as well as dressing up in costumes and going around the neighborhood to receive treats of candy, fruit, and cookies. When people come to the door, children say "trick or treat," meaning "if you don't give me a treat, I will trick you."
Thanksgiving Day - fourth Thursday in November: Official holiday. The first Thanksgiving Day was celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1621 to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and their triumph of survival over the wilderness. Now it is a time when Americans give thanks for the good life they enjoy. They celebrate by getting together with family to eat traditional foods such as turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
Hanukkah - eight days, usually in December: One of the less solemn of the Jewish holidays, but one widely observed even by nonreligious Jews. The only Jewish holiday connected with war, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of Jewish Maccabees over their Syrian rulers in 167 B.C. Hanukkah is marked with parties, games, gifts for children, and the lighting of the nine candles of the menorah.
Christmas - December 25: Official holiday. Many people regard Christmas as the most important holiday of the year, with the holiday season extending from a few days before Christmas to New Year's Day. Although its origins are religious in nature, it is a holiday celebrated by almost everyone in the country. Family members travel great distances to be together on this day on which gifts are exchanged, and a traditional dinner is shared. Even families who do not have strong religious convictions decorate a Christmas tree and join in the festivities of the Christmas season.