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American Holidays II

Updated on March 4, 2011
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Independence Day

Independence Day is the holiday that celebrates the birth of the United States of America. On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. When the crowd outside the State House in Philadelphia heard the news, a great celebration began. The Liberty Bell was rung in the State House steeple. Then, as Americans in all 13 states learned what had happened, they set off fireworks to celebrate their freedom from English rule.

The Fourth of July is the major summer holiday everywhere in the United States. Many towns and cities have parades, often featuring marching bands that play patriotic songs. Independence Day is still a day for fireworks. Some large cities put on such exciting fireworks shows that the displays are put on television so that people far away can see and enjoy them.

The two greatest Independence Day celebrations took place in 1876 and 1976. The 100th birthday—or Centennial— of the United States was observed in 1876. Once again, Philadelphia was the center of attention. A world’s fair, called the Centennial Exposition, showed off the country’s goods and technology. The 200th birthday—or Bicentennial – of American independence was in 1976. In Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell was moved outdoors for more than one million people to see. In New York, a huge fireworks display lit up the Statue of Liberty, and tall-masted ships sailed by in a salute to freedom. Smaller Bicentennial celebrations—with bell ringing, parades, and fireworks—took place all over the country.

Labor Day

The first Monday in September is Labor Day. While the holiday is meant to honor American workers, for many people, it also means the end of summer and the return to school.

The Labor Day holiday goes back to the 1800s. In 1882, a leader of an early labor union, Peter J. McGuire, suggested that a day be set aside to honor the people who toiled in factories, built the railroads, and did all the other hard work needed to keep the country going. On September 5 of that year, thousands of workers in New York City did not go to their jobs. Instead, they marched in a parade and listened to speeches about how they should get better pay and work shorter hours.

Twelve more years went by before Labor Day became an official holiday in the United States. Since 1894, most businesses and government offices have closed for Labor Day. While parades and speeches are still important parts of the holiday, most Americans celebrate Labor Day by going on picnics and getting together with family and friends.

Many other countries have a holiday to honor workers, but most of them celebrate it on May 1 or May Day. Canada is the only other country that celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday in September.

Veterans Day

The terrible bloodbath that was World War I came to an end on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” All the countries fighting in the war agreed to stop shooting at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918. The agreement was called an “armistice.” More than 100,000 Americans died in World War I.

In November 1921, Congress made November 11 a national holiday to honor those Americans who had given their lives fighting for their country in World War I. The holiday was known as “Armistice Day.” At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the body of an American soldier was buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This soldier was one of many who had been buried in France without ever being identified. No one knew the names of these soldiers. The American buried in the Arlington National Cemetery was a symbol of all the other “unknown soldiers.” On the tomb are these words: “Here rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.”

A second “Unknown Soldier” was buried in the tomb following World War II. Others have been added as symbols of unidentified soldiers killed in later wars. In 1954, the name of the holiday was changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. The idea of the holiday now is to honor all those who have served the U.S. Military. Every year on Veterans Day, the president of the United States of America or another high-ranking official lays a wreath of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Thanksgiving Day

As an American holiday, Thanksgiving goes back to 1621. I t was first celebrated by the Pilgrims, who invited Indians to a great feast. The feast may have lasted as long as three days! The Pilgrims gave thanks to God and to the Indians for helping them survive the winter and reaping a good harvest.

Some of the foods eaten at that early feast are still Thanksgiving favorites: turkey, squash, and pumpkin. But the Pilgrims and Indians also ate oysters, deer, corn meal pudding, and eel! It was also at the first Thanksgiving feast that the Indians showed the Pilgrims how to make popcorn.

The idea of a special day to give thanks to God spread to other colonies. But each colony chose a different day for the holiday. In 1789, George Washington declared that November 26 would be a day of national thanksgiving. In the early 1800s, however, few Americans celebrated the holiday. It was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln said that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday every year. Lincoln said that it would be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. In 1941, Congress made a small change in the date. The fourth Thursday in November is now Thanksgiving Day.

In addition to giving thanks for all the good things in their lives, most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving by watching parades (with Santa Claus at the end!) and football games. Then they enjoy a big turkey dinner with family and friends.

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