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Ways of Life, Celebrations and Holidays

Jewish Festival of Lights, Decoration Day, traditional Thanksgiving meal, patriotic music, decorated Christmas trees

Americans celebrate an enormous variety of festivals and holidays because they come from around the globe and practice many religions. They also celebrate holidays specific to the United States that commemorate historical events or encourage a common national memory. Holidays in America are often family or community events. Many Americans travel long distances for family gatherings or take vacations during holidays. In fact, by the end of the 20th century, many national holidays in the United States had become three-day weekends, which many people used as mini vacations. Except for the Fourth of July and Veterans Day, most commemorative federal holidays, including Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Presidents’ Day, are celebrated on Mondays so that Americans can enjoy a long weekend. Because many Americans tend to create vacations out of these holiday weekends rather than celebrate a particular event, some people believe the original significance of many of these occasions has been eroded.

Because the United States is a secular society founded on the separation of church and state, many of the most meaningful religiously based festivals and rituals, such as Easter, Rosh Hashanah, and Ramadan, are not enshrined as national events, with one major exception. Christmas, and the holiday season surrounding it, is an enormous commercial enterprise, a fixture of the American social calendar, and deeply embedded in the popular imagination. Not until the 19th century did Christmas in the United States begin to take on aspects of the modern holiday celebration, such as exchanging gifts, cooking and eating traditional foods, and putting up often-elaborate Christmas decorations. The holiday has grown in popularity and significance ever since. Santa Claus; brightly decorated Christmas trees; and plenty of wreathes, holly, and ribbons help define the season for most children. Indeed, because some religious faiths do not celebrate Christmas, the Christmas season has expanded in recent years to become the “holiday season,” embracing Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, and Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage. Thus, the Christmas season has become the closest thing to a true national festival in the United States.

The expansion of Christmas has even begun to encroach on the most indigenous of American festivals, Thanksgiving. Celebrated on the last Thursday in November, Thanksgiving has largely shed its original religious meaning (as a feast of giving thanks to God) to become a celebration of the bounty of food and the warmth of family life in America. American children usually commemorate the holiday’s origins at school, where they re-create the original event: Pilgrims sharing a harvest feast with Native Americans. Both the historical and the religious origins of the event have largely given way to a secular celebration centered on the traditional Thanksgiving meal: turkey—an indigenous American bird—accompanied by foods common in early New England settlements, such as pumpkins, squashes, and cranberries. Since many Americans enjoy a four-day holiday at Thanksgiving, the occasion encourages family reunions and travel. Some Americans also contribute time and food to the needy and the homeless during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Another holiday that has lost its older, religious meaning in the United States is Halloween, the eve of All Saints’ Day. Halloween has become a celebration of witches, ghosts, goblins, and candy that is especially attractive to children. On this day and night, October 31, many homes are decorated and lit by jack-o'-lanterns, pumpkins that have been hollowed out and carved. Children dress up and go trick-or-treating, during which they receive treats from neighbors. An array of orange-colored candies has evolved from this event, and most trick-or-treat bags usually brim with chocolate bars and other confections.

The Fourth of July, or Independence Day, is the premier American national celebration because it commemorates the day the United States proclaimed its freedom from Britain with the Declaration of Independence. Very early in its development, the holiday was an occasion for fanfare, parades, and speeches celebrating American freedom and the uniqueness of American life. Since at least the 19th century, Americans have commemorated their independence with fireworks and patriotic music. Because the holiday marks the founding of the republic in 1776, flying the flag of the United States (sometimes with the original 13 stars) is common, as are festive barbecues, picnics, fireworks, and summer outings.

Most other national holidays have become less significant over time and receded in importance as ways in which Americans define themselves and their history. For example, Columbus Day was formerly celebrated on October 12, the day explorer Christopher Columbus first landed in the West Indies, but it is now celebrated on the second Monday of October to allow for a three-day weekend. The holiday originally served as a traditional reminder of the "discovery" of America in 1492, but as Americans became more sensitive to their multicultural population, celebrating the conquest of Native Americans became more controversial.

Holidays honoring wars have also lost much of their original significance. Memorial Day, first called Decoration Day and celebrated on May 30, was established to honor those who died during the American Civil War (1861-1865), then subsequently those who died in all American wars. Similarly, Veterans Day was first named Armistice Day and marked the end of World War I (1914-1918). During the 1950s the name of the holiday was changed in the United States, and its significance expanded to honor armed forces personnel who served in any American war.

The memory of America's first president, George Washington, was once celebrated on his birthday, February 22nd. The date was changed to the third Monday in February to create a three-day weekend, as well as to incorporate the birthday of another president, Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12th. The holiday is now popularly called Presidents’ Day and is less likely to be remembered as honoring the first and 16th American presidents than as a school and work holiday. Americans also memorialize Martin Luther King, Jr., the great African American civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. King’s birthday is celebrated as a national holiday in mid-January. The celebration of King's birthday has become a sign of greater inclusiveness in 20th-century American society.

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