by Andrew Purvis
American culture has been shaped by many influences, and this is reflected in the variety of holidays that you will see observed here. Are you wondering why there's no class today? Or why small children in costumes keep knocking at your door? Keep reading, and you will find out.
Note: Banks and government offices are closed on federal holidays, marked by the symbol (F).
September 4th - Labor Day (F)
This American holiday, observed on the first Monday of September, recognizes the contributions American workers have made to the nation. The first Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5th, 1882. The second was held on the same date the next year, a Wednesday. In 1884, organizers started observing the first Monday in September as Labor Day.
September 17th - Mexican Independence Day
Before dawn on September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, called for indians (natives) and mestizos (mixed native and Spanish) to rise up against Spain. This is regarded as the beginning of the revolution, though groups had already been in revolt for some time.
September 29th - Rosh Hashannah
The Jewish New Year celebrates the sixth day of creation. It begins at sundown (Judaism uses a lunar calendar) and lasts for two days. This is also the day of judgement of all Jews for their life in the past year, and it is the first of the High Holy Days.
October 8th - Yom Kippur
The last of the High Holy Days, Yom Kippur is the Day Of Atonement. In observance of the holiday, Jews may not eat or drink, wear perfume, have "marital relations," wash, or wear leather shoes. They gather to ask forgiveness for their sins of the past year.
October 31st - Halloween
Halloween is a holiday formed by the Catholic church’s attempt to get rid of a Celtic holiday. The Celts believe that good and evil spirits as well as fairies roamed about on November 1st. In order to protect themselves, the people dressed up as evil spirits and placed drawings of scary faces outside their homes. They also believed that fairies went from door to door asking for food. People who gave food were rewarded, and those who gave nothing got pranks played on them. In modern times, Halloween is celebrated by carving faces in pumpkins and having children dressed up in costumes go from home to home saying "trick or treat" to people who answer the door. People usually buy candy to hand out to the children who come to their door.
November 11th - Veterans Day (F)
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed. November eleventh became known as Armistice Day, in honor of Americans who died fighting in WWI, when a law recognizing the holiday was passed in 1938. In 1954, in honor of Americans who fought and died in World War II and Korea, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day.
November 23rd - Thanksgiving (F)
Thanks in great part to the help of Native Americans, the Pilgrims who had left Europe because of religious persecution, survived their first year (1620-21) in the New World. In honor of this event, the Pilgrims held a harvest feast and invited the Native Americans to join them. Thanksgiving was first recognized as a national holiday in 1789. Americans today gather with friends and family for feasts in celebration of the holiday. The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year.
December 21st - Chanukkah
"The Festival of Lights," as it is known, is celebrated for eight days starting at sundown. It is not a major holiday in the Jewish calendar, but because it is celebrated around the time of Christmas, it is well known. Chanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple after it was desecrated by the Greeks. There was only enough oil to burn in the temple for one night, but it miraculously burned for eight nights—long enough for the Jews to prepare more oil.
December 25th - Christmas (F)
One of the most important holidays in the Christian calendar, Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Historians and biblical scholars agree that this is not even the correct season for Christ’s birth, but it dates back 4,000 years to the Mesopotamian new year’s celebration named Zagmuk. Over the years, other civilizations held similar ceremonies until Julius I, then the Bishop of Rome, set the observation of Christ’s birth as December 25th. In this day and age Americans have commercialized Christmas. For most, it is a secular holiday during which gifts are exchanged and sales last from the day after Thanksgiving until the end of the year.
December 26th - Kwanzaa
In Swahili, Kwanzaa means "the first fruits of the harvest." The holiday, begun in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga is a secular holiday celebrating African heritage. The holiday lasts seven days, and each day is focused on one of the seven principles (Ngubo Saba): unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
December 31st - New Year’s Eve
Westerners celebrate the new year on December 31st and January 1st, in accordance with the beginning of the Julian calendar (the twelve-month solar calendar standardized by Julius Caesar) year. Americans celebrate the new year by getting together, in private residences or in public gatherings, for parties. In New York’s Times Square a huge lighted ball drops down a pole just before midnight. When it reaches the bottom of the pole, fireworks and more lights "ring in" the new year. Similar celebrations take place in other cities. Seattle, the "Times Square of the West," starts the elevators up the Space Needle. When they reach the top (at midnight), thousands of fireworks light up the night sky.
January 1st is a federal holiday (F).