© 2015 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
A public holiday is a day designated to celebrate a specific event, such as a country's independence, a patriot's birthday, or a major religious occasion. If a public holiday falls on a weekend, it might be celebrated on the nearest weekday. And if it falls on a weekday, it usually means that workers have that day off, with pay. People working on a public holiday generally get extra pay for doing so.
Public holidays can occur on the same day each year, be fixed to a certain day of a given week, or on a day tied to an alternate calendar (such as one following the phases of the moon, rather than the sun). (In the US, the Presidential Inauguration Day is celebrated once every four years.)
Countries made up of states, provinces, and other such subdivisions often have both national and state-specific public holidays. For example, in the US, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday. However, not all US states recognize that day, and even in those that do, there is no requirement that private companies give their employees the day off. My birth state, South Australia, has Proclamation Day to celebrate the establishment of government there as a British province, in 1836. (My father-in-law, John Hill, was named after his ancestor, a crew member on the HMS Buffalo on which Governor Hindmarsh arrived.) Texas celebrates its independence from Mexico on Texas Independence Day. [South Australia and Texas are "sister states", both having been created in 1836, although Texas did not join the US until some years later.]
In the UK and parts of the British Commonwealth, a public holiday is known as a bank holiday.
For a list of public holidays by country, click here.
For more discussion on holidays in general, see my July 2012 essay, Are You Getting Enough Vacation?
New Year's Day
As its name suggests, New Year's Day is the first day of the new year. And while most westerners immediately think of January 1st, people in other cultures use non-Gregorian calendars, or other methods to determine their holidays. Many places—such as Sydney, Australia—celebrate with fireworks at the stroke of midnight. In the US, New York City has the famous "dropping of the ball" in Times Square. Vienna, Austria, is famous for its New Year's Concert.
Chinese New Year is the first day of the lunar calendar, and typically occurs between January 20 and February 20.
The short-form name of the Vietnamese New Year (which is also lunar-calendar based), is Tết. According to Wikipedia, "The Tet Offensive was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam against the forces of South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian commands and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place."
Koreans get time off at the start of both solar and lunar new years. I ask you, "Is that fair?"
Many Muslims use the Hijri Islamic calendar, which is also a lunar calendar
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurs in September or October.
The Russian New Year, Novy God, used to be September 1, until Tsar Peter I decreed something else.
National or Independence Days
Some countries gained their independence by force while others were granted independence. The US celebrates in a big way every July 4th.
Australians celebrate Australia Day on January 26 to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships in 1788; however, the country actually became independent on January 1, 1901.
Each July 14, the French National Day, Bastille Day, commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution with the Storming of the Bastille.
While Cinco de Mayo (literally, "the fifth of May" in Spanish) is widely celebrated, it is not any country's Independence Day despite claims to the contrary.
The Celebration of the unification of East and West Germany process occurs on German Unity Day, on October 3.
For Christians, the two biggest holidays are Christmas and Easter. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and usually occurs on December 25. According to Wikipedia, "While the month and date of Jesus' birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid 4th century, the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted in the East, although some churches celebrate on the December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which, in the Gregorian calendar, currently corresponds to January 7, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany." Others celebrate on January 6 or 19.
In Australia, we Aussie kids got presents from Father Christmas; American kids have Santa Claus (or "Santa" for short); to my Dutch friends, Sinterklaas delivers presents December 5; while others get a visit from Saint Nicolas.
Australia's development of its own unique National culture really came to the fore in the 1970s with the advent of the Aussie greeting-card industry. Prior to that, Aussie Christmas cards depicted winter scenes from England, which is rather silly when you consider that Down Under, its summer! Thanks to Aussie ingenuity, Santa can now be seen sitting in a deck chair, in his swimming trunks, at the beach with a six-pack of beer (as God intended).
To read more than you ever wanted to know about Christmas trees, click here.
Another memory from my Aussie youth was the calendar entry marked Boxing Day, on December 26. I never knew what that meant until a few years ago when I decided to research it. Way back when, the lord of the manor would distribute a "Christmas box" to certain servants and tradesmen.
Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. According to Wikipedia, "Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, the full moon that occurs on or soonest after 21 March (taken to be the date of the equinox)."
In Australia (as with other countries as well), Easter is a 4-day long weekend. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are church-going days; Saturday is the time to take a breather, historically with seriously reduced shopping hours; and Monday is a huge sporting day. Unfortunately, that holiday also sets the highest highway death toll for a weekend. The first year I lived in the US, my wife and I were busy making plans for what we were going to do with our up-coming Easter long weekend. Imagine out surprise when we found that great Christian country had no Easter public holiday at all!
Now as for the Easter Bunny, it's not clear to me what role he played in the resurrection.
It is interesting to note that some major Christian religious holidays occur right about the same time as some pagan predecessors. In order to convert their subjects, they found it useful to preserve certain feast days, but to give them a new meaning, sneaky devils!
Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, is celebrated by Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting.
Jews celebrate a number of days, including Pesach (Passover) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
When I was taking Spanish lessons in Antigua, Guatemala, a major celebration there was Todos Santos (All Saints Day), on November 1. I managed to get to the town of Chichicastenango where I witnessed the grand parade in which a religious statue was carried through the streets. Several years later, I was in Vera Cruz, Mexico, for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for the same holiday. We cleaned up the cemetery around the graves of departed relatives before shooting off fireworks. You've likely heard of
Halloween (All Hallows' Eve or All Saints' Eve) celebrated on October 31.
It's probably a toss-up as to which US holiday is bigger, Independence Day or Thanksgiving. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November to honor the giving of thanks by the Pilgrims after they establish their settlement in New England in 1621.
The theme of Thanksgiving is to "go home to be with family". As such, it's the busiest travel period of the year, and if major snowfalls occur, chaos erupts. Many people take a floating holiday on the Friday following, so they can have a 4-day weekend.
In my 35+ years of living in the US, I've had more than a few Americans ask me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia. Each time I've had to remind them the Pilgrims didn't quite make it to Australia; duh! That said I do have memories of attending Harvest Thanksgiving services at my local Lutheran Church. The altar and surrounds were decorated with fresh produce and homemade food and drink.
Canada's Thanksgiving predates America's, and has to do with giving thanks for surviving a long sea journey from England through the perils of storms and icebergs. It is now celebrated on the second Monday in October, and is tied to the close of the harvest season.
Rumor has it that the Brits celebrate their Thanksgiving on July 4 (US Independence Day), when they finally got rid of those troublesome colonies!
According to Wikipedia, "Labour Day (Labor Day in the United States) is an annual holiday to celebrate the achievements of workers. Labour Day has its origins in the labour union movement, specifically the eight-hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. For many countries, Labour Day is synonymous with, or linked with, International Workers' Day, which occurs on 1 May. For other countries, Labour Day is celebrated on a different date, often one with special significance for the labour movement in that country. In Canada and the United States, it is celebrated on the first Monday of September and considered the official end of the summer holiday for most of the respective countries, as public school and university students return to school that week or the following week."
In the US, this is a national holiday on the first Monday of September, while in Australia it is celebrated on different days in different states and territories.
According to Wikipedia, this day, "also known as St John's Day, is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, and more specifically the Northern European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 21 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures."
While this day is celebrated in numerous countries, I've personally witnessed it in two: Denmark and Finland. Copenhagen is home to the famous Tivoli Gardens, and I was in town on business and had my wife and young son with me. On Saint John's Day, we went to the gardens for an evening of entertainment, and to see the burning of a huge witch. As the fire raged, my son asked where the witch went after she was burned, to which I replied, in English, "She comes back as your mother-in-law." Those Danes nearby who understood English smiled on hearing that.
I was visiting Finnish friends in Helsinki, and for the holiday weekend, we drove to their lakeside cabin, complete with sauna (as God intended; after all, this was Finland!) There the day is called Juhannus Day after John the Baptist. In the evening, we made our way through the ever-present dark clouds of mosquitoes to the local village where we ate great food while being entertained by singers of folk songs. The culmination was the burning of a large witch on a platform out in the lake.
Apparently, it is not necessary to actually burn a witch. All along the coast and lakesides around Scandinavia, ordinary bonfires can be seen burning on this night.
Nowadays, the closest we have in the US to a festival with a witch burning is Burning Man. [I might just add this to my own bucket list.]
The UK and member countries of the British Commonwealth celebrate the Queen's Birthday; however, they don't always do it on the same date, or on the Queen's actual birthday. Some years ago, at the last minute, I bought a cheap 3-day weekend airfare from Washington DC to Ottawa, Canada's capital. On arrival, I discovered it was Victoria Day, named for the birthday of that foxy babe Queen Victoria. It now designates the reigning sovereign, whoever that may be. Ottawa is a fine city to visit at any time of the year, but a reason to go there in May is to witness the spectacular Canadian Tulip Festival when more than a million tulip bulbs are blooming in a small area with half a million pedestrians going around to see them. As to how this festival got started, let's just say it has something to do with the Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands being there during WWII, and leave it for you to read about that offline.
A major public holiday in Australia (and New Zealand) is Anzac Day, April 25, when the country remembers its people who died fighting or who served in wars. This day has its roots in the tragedy of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers at Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI. Many towns start the day with a dawn church service at a war memorial often referred to as a Cross of Sacrifice. The big military holiday in the US is Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, while Armistice Day is widely observed on "the 11th day of the 11th month" in countries involved in WWI.
Back in the old days, the peasants slaved away in harsh conditions for long hours each day, usually for at least six days a week. In order to allow them to let off some steam, the landed gentry and church gave the workers a day off and a celebration now and then. As best as I can tell, in the Western world, that is still pretty much the reason behind most public holidays.