U.S. National Holidays 101 for International Students

U.S. National Holidays 101 for International Students

Every country and every culture celebrates different events and holidays.  It is important to understand the story behind them to be able to integrate better with the culture you live in – in this case the American one.

Colleges close during all important national holidays.  That is also why breaks are usually scheduled around national holiday celebrations. For example, students get a couple of days off around Thanksgiving in November and often up to one month during December and January because of Christmas.

Apart from schools closing on national holidays, you will also find that in some States government offices and other workplaces will be closed – this may even include your local grocery store. Restaurants will usually stay open, but may have different opening hours.

Please see below a list of the most important United States National Holidays:

  • New Year’s Day January 1. The celebration of New Year’s Day usually occurs the night before, on “New Year’s Eve,” when usually groups of people (family and friends) have a party to celebrate the coming of the new year. These parties include appetizers, dinner and alcoholic drinks and lots of fun and laughter. Just before midnight, everyone counts down from ten to zero until the new year arrives. Everyone usually scream “Happy New Year” and lots of hugs and kisses are exchanged, as well as the popping of champagne bottles when the new year officially arrives.
  • Memorial Day (last Monday in May). On this day homage is paid to U.S. soldiers who have died in wars.
  • Independence Day (July 4) usually termed “the Fourth of July“). On this day Parades, fireworks (which are now illegal in most states) and flags are swung to celebrate the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
  • Labor Day (first Monday in September). This day is noting the importance of labor and labor organizations.
  • Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November). This is a harvest celebration, stemming from harvest-time festivities in the original American colonies. Traditionally, families gather and have a large meal that includes turkey and pumpkin pie. Many schools and universities are closed on the Friday following Thanksgiving.
  • Christmas (December 25). A major U.S. holiday. It began as a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but is now a widely celebrated day of feasting and gift-giving. Preparations, including gift-buying and decoration of homes and public places, begin as early as Thanksgiving. “Santa Claus,” a mythical figure, is said to visit the homes of children on the night of December 24 and leave gifts for them while they sleep.


Many universities and workplaces also recognize these holidays:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr Day (It is actually on January 15, but celebrated on the third Monday in January), a legal holiday in some states.
  • Presidents Day (third Monday in February). Commemorates Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays. It is also a legal holiday.
  • Easter (The date varies, a Sunday in spring) Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For children, baskets of candy and dyed, hard-boiled eggs are hidden by a mythical “Easter Rabbit” or “Easter Bunny.” The children seek out the hidden eggs and sometimes also receive small gifts.
  • Columbus Day October 12 (or nearest Monday). Commemorates the landing of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on the shores of North America. A legal holiday, but not a business one.
  • Veterans Day the second Monday in November. A legal holiday, honoring veterans of armed service.

Veteran's Day

Other national holidays or days of note throughout the United States include

  • Mardi Gras (the date varies, but is in February or March). Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, is the last day of feasting before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and refer to events of the Carnival celebrations.
  • Valentine’s Day (February 14). A day for lovers to exchange cards and/or gifts. Children in primary school usually exchange “valentine cards” with their classmates.
  • St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), A day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland. Many people wear something green on this day and some pubs even serve green beer.
  • Mother’s Day: the second Sunday in May. Gifts, cards and/or special attention are given to mothers and grandmothers.
  • Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June. Gifts, cards and/or special attention are given to fathers and grandfathers.
  • Halloween (October 31), A children’s holiday, associated with carving faces on pumpkins called “jack o’lanterns” and making witches, cats, and ghosts for decorations. Children often go to parties in costumes or go “trick or treating.” “Trick or treating” means young children (ages up to about 9-10 years old) putting on a costume and going door-to-door in a neighborhood saying “trick or treat,” and being given a piece of candy or fruit by the occupant of the house or apartment. Young children should be accompanied by an adult when trick or treating. These days, even college students and young professionals dress up in a costume and attend Halloween parties.
  • Election Day (first Tuesday after the first Monday in November). Not a legal or business holiday, but people may leave work briefly in order to vote in municipal, county, state and/or national elections.
  • Hanukkah, late November or (usually) December. An eight-day Jewish holiday marking the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
  • New Year’s Eve (December 31).

St Patricks Day

Citizens throughout the United States will often recognize these days with special celebrations, but stores and schools are rarely closed in observance of them.

Officially, the US has no “national” holidays. The country has federal holidays observed by government agencies, and some states have their own specific holidays, too. Depending on the region of the country you are in and local customs, you may celebrate a holiday unheard of in other parts of the United States.

Make sure you try and participate in at least some of those national holidays as they are fun, and a great way to meet new people, get out of the dorm and have a great new experience!






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