"National U.S. holidays" and history months during our stay


"National U.S. holidays"

Technically, the United States does not celebrate national holidays, but the Congress has designated ten "legal public holidays," during which most federal institutions are closed and most federal employees excused from work. While the individual states and private businesses are not required to observe these, in practice, all states, and nearly all employers, observe the majority of them. At present, the Congress has designated ten legal holidays. Since 1971, a number of these have been fixed on Mondays rather than on a particular calendar date so as to afford workers a long holiday weekend.

From January 5th to March 31st, two U.S. holidays are celebrated. These two days are Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday in January and Washington's Birthday (also often called Presidents' day) on the third Monday in February.

Martin Luther King Day

In 2007, Martin Luther King Day fell on the civil rights leader's birthday, January 15th. Since 1999, all fifty states observed the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the third Monday in January. The Congress passed the holiday legislation in 1983, which was then signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2d, 1983. But the history of this day is long and controversial [1].

Martin Luther King was born on January 15th, 1929, in Atlanta (Georgia) and died on April 4th, 1968. It took 15 years to create the federal Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Congressman John Conyers, Democrat from Michigan, first introduced legislation for a commemorative holiday four days after King was assassinated in 1968. After the bill became stalled, petitions endorsing the holiday containing six million names were submitted to Congress. Conyers and Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, resubmitted King holiday legislation each subsequent legislative session. Public pressure for the holiday mounted during the 1982 and 1983 civil rights marches in Washington. Congress passed the holiday legislation in 1983, which was then signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. A compromise moving the holiday from January 15th, King's birthday, which was considered too close to Christmas and New Year's, to the third Monday in January helped overcome opposition to the law. But the opposition didn't stop in 1983. A number of states resisted celebrating the holiday. Some opponents said King did not deserve his own holiday-contending that the entire civil rights movement rather than one individual, however instrumental, should be honored. Several southern states include celebrations for various Confederate generals on that day. Arizona voters approved the holiday in 1992 after a tourist boycott. In 1999, New Hampshire changed the name of Civil Rights Day to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

Peace Walk in Washington D.C., January 15th, 2007 (photo taken by Elodie Aguilar)

Washington's Birthday

On the third Monday in February is honored the military leader of the American Revolution and first President of the United States. It has been a legal holiday since 1885. It was originally celebrated each February 22d. The Uniform Holidays Act, passed by the Congress in 1968 to take effect in 1971, fixed the holiday on a Monday. In 2007, this holiday took place on Monday, February 19.

As a number of states also celebrated the February 12 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President, some legislators advocated combining the two events into a single holiday. A holiday in a few states, Lincoln's day was first formally observed in Washington, DC, in 1866, when both houses of Congress gathered for a memorial address in tribute to the assassinated president. The final legislation retained the Washington's Birthday holiday but many Americans now call the holiday "Presidents' Day", believing the change to Mondays was intended to honor both Washington and Lincoln or all Presidents, and 13 states, including Ohio, officially celebrate "Presidents' Day". This day is also a commercial day used for sales announced in the newspapers and on television by many commercials.

Some traditional holidays

Besides the legal holidays some traditional American holidays exist. In February and March are celebrated:

- Groundhog day, February 2: it refers to a legend telling that if groundhog [2] sees his shadow, he'll return to his hole, and winter will last another six weeks.

- Valentine's day, February 14: day of lovers, it is also a day for every kind of love and friendship in the United States. From preschool to high school, Valentine's day is celebrated with cards, cookies, candies, heart-shaped balloons… It can be offered to a lover but also to one's grandmother. This holiday has also become a booming commercial success. For example, according to the Greeting Card Association, 25% of all cards sent each year are valentines. Unfortunately, Valentine's day happened during snow days in Ohio so that delivering flowers or going to the restaurant were a lot more difficult than usual, which means less benefits for those businesses. In the schools, Valentine's day was nevertheless celebrated but postponed to the following Monday.

- Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday), Tuesday February 20th, 2007 falls the day before Ash Wednesday (Wednesday, February 21st), which marks the first day of Lent in the Christian Calendar. Ashes are used by Catholics and you can meet people with a black cross on their forehead that day. The French name, Mardi Gras, is the most common in the United States. Celebrations are held in several American cities, particularly New Orleans, where the French settlers implemented this tradition and which explains the use of the French term.

- St Patrick's day, March 17th: St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, has been honored in America since the first days of the nation. Perhaps the most notable observance is the annual St Patrick's Day parade in New York City.

Half-mast for President Gerald R. Ford

When we arrived in the United States, President Gerald Ford just died. He passed away on Tuesday, December 26th at the age of 93. So the flags were flying half-mast in honor of the former U.S. President. Bush's order calls for 30 days of this honor from the day of Ford's death (December 26 through the evening of January 25).

The American flags were flying half-mast on federal buildings, like the White House in Washington.

The White House, January 13th, 2007 (photo taken by Marie-Pierre Takir)

But the flag was also flying half-mast on every public building, like in the University of Akron or in Ellet High School were I am teaching, in Akron.

Ellet High School, Akron, January 11th, 2007

Ellet High School, Akron, one month later, February 13th, 2007

The 38th president of the United States was born in 1913. He is linked to Michigan, where he was elected many times as a republican congressman. He died in California, where he moved after leaving the White House in 1977. A state funeral was held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C. After a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral, on Tuesday, January 2d, 2007, the casket was transported to the Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After funeral services on Wednesday, January 3, 2007, at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Ford was interred on a hillside north of the museum. Bush, who attended Ford's funeral, said the man who took over the top job after the resignation of President Richard Nixon led with honorable conduct and a sense of duty in a time of post-Watergate turmoil.

Flags were also flying half-mast for one day in Canada and in the United Kingdom in honor of Gerald Ford. In London, Buckingham Palace's flag flies at half-mast as a mark of respect following the death of former U.S. President Gerald Ford in London, on Thursday, January 28th. The National Flag of Canada was flying at half-mast on the Peace Tower in Ottawa and on all Government of Canada buildings and establishments across the country, from sunrise to sunset on Tuesday, January 2d, 2007, the day of the funeral of the late Gerald R. Ford, former President of the United States of America.

Historical Months

From special days or week to history months, trends in history and in society are changing in the United States. Some "new" actors of history - minorities and/or second-class citizens - are now recognized in the calendar by a month of celebration and study of their history: Black history month (February), Women's History Month (March), Jewish heritage month (May), Hispanic Heritage Month (October) since a 1988 law and National American Indian Heritage Month (November) since 1990. At first, one week only was devoted to Black history; it is a month now. Lately, in 2006, President Bush created an American Jewish Heritage Month. Such a month already existed in Florida, in the month of January, since 2004. After one year of work, a resolution first sponsored by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) to designate a month to celebrate and teach Jewish history and culture was officially signed into law by President Bush on April 20th, 2006. Originally intended to be the month of January, the resolution names May as Jewish American Heritage Month.

During our stay, two history months are celebrated, in school, on television, in exhibitions, in libraries, in bookshops... Presidential speeches dedicated to these history months are also held each year. But it is still part of the debate over what history and whose history should be learned by the Americans.

As underlined for example in an article in The Buchtelite, the Akron University newspaper, some are wondering if a month is enough or too much. Why, for example, an entire month should be focusing on Black history when none are devoted to White history? Every month seems to be "White history month", one could answer. The textbooks don't identify Benjamin Franklin or Theodore Roosevelt as "white European males". But they identify Frederick Douglass or Jackie Robinson as African Americans, because if the identifier is not there, it is assumed they are white. Each of these history months can be considered as a modest starting point to learn more about the historical and actual issues of the United States. The controversy over national history is not over in the United States and it is the way history is advancing.

February: Black History Month

Black history month is a remembrance of important people and events in African American history. It is celebrated annually in the United States and Canada in the month of February, while in the United Kingdom it is held in the month of October. Each year, a theme is chosen. The theme of this year was: "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas".

The main pioneer of the celebration of Black History Month, and more importantly, the study of black history, is Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born in December 19th, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia, from parents who were former slaves, Woodson was an untutored coal miner at 17. At 19, after teaching himself the fundamentals of English and arithmetic, he entered high school - a high school for black students - and mastered the four-year curriculum in less than two years. At 22, after two-thirds of a year at Berea College in Kentucky, he returned to the coal mines and studied Latin and Greek between trips to the mine shafts. He then went on to the University of Chicago, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees, and Harvard University, where he became the second black to receive a doctorate in history.

The systematic and scientific study of black history began with Woodson. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, ASALH) in 1915, and a year later founded the widely respected Journal of Negro History. He played a great role in academic fields, but also promoted mass education on that subject. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history. Woodson chose the second week of February for the celebration because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population: Frederick Douglass (February 14th), an escaped slave who became one of the foremost black abolitionists and civil rights leaders in the nation, and President Abraham Lincoln (February 12th), who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in America's confederate states.

By the time of Woodson's death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a well-established cultural institution. With the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, many in the African American community began to complain about the insufficiency of a week-long celebration. Negro History Week was officially expanded to Black History Month in 1976, when the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History responded to the popular call, citing the 50th annual celebration and America's bicentennial.

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), founded by Woodson, has its headquarters in Washington, where Woodson lived from 1915 until his death in 1950. This association supports historical research, publishes a scholarly journal and sets the theme for Black History Month each year, carrying on the aim of the Negro History Week, which was conceived as a mean of undermining the foundation of the idea of black inferiority through popular information grounded in scholarship.

Until his death at the age of 74, on April 3rd, 1950, Woodson constantly struggled to give a better and broader place to Blacks in history. Woodson, creator of Negro History Week in 1926, hoped that the week would eventually be eliminated, when African-American history would be fully integrated with American history.

Each year, the U.S. president honors Black History Month, or African American History Month as it is also called, with a proclamation and a celebration at the White House. States and cities hold their own events around the country, and media feature topics related to black history. "African Americans have been an integral part of America for generations, and our nation is stronger because of their contributions," Bush said in this year's proclamation, issued on January 26th. "All Americans can be proud of the progress we have made, yet the work … is not done."

March: Women's History Month

Before 1970, women's history was rarely the subject of serious study. Two significant factors contributed to the emergence of women's history. The women's movement of the sixties caused women to question their invisibility in traditional American history texts. The movement also raised the aspirations as well as the opportunities of women, and produced a growing number of female historians. Women's history was also part of a larger movement that transformed the study of history in the United States. "History" had traditionally meant political history-a chronicle of the key political events and of the leaders, primarily men, who influenced them. But by the 1970s "the new social history" began replacing the older style. Emphasis shifted to a broader spectrum of American life, including such topics as the history of urban life, public health, ethnicity, the media and poverty. Since women rarely held leadership positions and until recently had only a marginal influence on politics, the new history, with its emphasis on the sociological and the ordinary, was an ideal vehicle for presenting women's history. Now a place is made in history textbooks for women's history. This broader place for women in history is often founded in separate chapters, after the "general history" and before the history of minorities (Black history for example).

The public celebration of women's history in the United States began in 1978 as "Women's History Week" in Sonoma County, California. The week including March 8th, International Women's Day, was selected. In 1981, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) co-sponsored a joint Congressional resolution proclaiming a national Women's History Week. In 1987, the Congress expanded the celebration to a month, and March was declared Women's History Month.

Finally, through these calendar events, one can also learn more about American history and society. In school, it means a day off and/or a particular theme, especially for social studies lessons. But above this it reflects some of the historical issues in the United States. The debate over U.S. national history is not over. The events celebrated in federal holidays and in history months reflect prevailing political attitudes and cultural values. But there are "competing versions of the collective memory. Young students need not be distressed that the current generation's "true" history may be the next generation's foolishness […]. If Americans should ever find themselves coalescing around a single version of the past endorsed by government, they are also likely to discover that they no longer have a democracy." [3]

By Mélanie

[1] Most of this information come from the website infoplease (www.infoplease.com), directed by Pearson Education. Information about history months can also be found on this website. The website USINFO (http://usinfo.state.gov), produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, provides also up-to-date information about federal holidays and the speeches pronounced by the U.S. President on these occasions.

[2] A groundhog is "une marmotte d'Amérique" in French.

[3] Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial. Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, New York, Vintage Books, 2000, p.xx.





Teachers In Training

Akron - Ohio





Découvrir l'Est américain

Comprendre le système éducatif américain

Enseigner l'Histoire dans l'Ohio