A Look at Paid Holidays

A calendar with a date circled in red

A calendar with red pushpins and a date circled in red
As Labor Day approaches, I thought this might be a good time to examine the origins of state and federal holidays, and why we observe them. Before you read any further, though, here’s a trivia question: “Which two federal holidays does North Carolina not officially recognize?” I’ll get to the answer in a moment. First, let’s review the 11 federal paid holidays.

New Year’s Day … although we don’t normally think of January 1 as a religious holiday, some Christians celebrate it as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. Ouch! Not exactly my idea of the most relaxing way to spend a holiday. This year, federal workers got a paid day off on Monday, January 2nd because New Year’s Day fell on Sunday. 

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. … not surprisingly this holiday was once a lightning rod of political controversy. Four days after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Rep. John Conyers floated the idea of a federal holiday in honor of the slain civil rights leader, but the bill faced opposition mainly from White legislators in the South. In 1983 Congress finally authorized MLK Day despite the efforts of NC Senator Jesse Helms who filibustered to smear King’s character. The holiday wasn’t observed until 1986, and though Dr. King’s birthday is January 15, the holiday is celebrated every third Monday in January.

Washington’s Birthday … though designated in the United States Code as “Washington’s Birthday” dating back to the 1880s, we now refer to this federal holiday as President’s Day so that it can honor Washington as well as Abe Lincoln, both of whom were born in the month of February. Today we celebrate these men on the third Monday of February. 

Memorial Day … was first designated as Decoration Day in 1868, and became a federal holiday in 1971. Today it is observed on the last Monday in May to honor men and women who died while serving in the military. 

Juneteenth National Independence Day … became a federal holiday in 2021 to commemorate the date (June 19, 1865) when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to notify slaves there that they had been emancipated. My friend, former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder noted that Juneteenth is “an opportunity for people of all races, creeds, and colors to gain education and understanding of the issues many still strive to overcome.”

Independence Day … commemorates the date that the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence to signify our break from British rule. Initially our ancestors celebrated by lighting bonfires and giving speeches. Today we shoot off deafening fireworks, which cause pets to shake with fear. Independence Day became a federal holiday in 1941. My dogs wish we had lost to the British.

Labor Day … first celebrated in 1882 at a labor assembly in New York City, it became a national holiday in 1894 to recognize the economic achievements and contributions of American workers. There is some dispute about who actually proposed the first Labor Day holiday. According to the US Labor Department, some records show that Peter McGuire came up with the idea. McGuire was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Other research indicates that machinist Matthew McGuire (no relation) was the founder. Either way, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Columbus Day …  only in America could we designate a national holiday to honor a racist who enslaved and tortured natives and people of color. As a kid, I didn’t know about the dark side of Christopher Columbus. I just thought he was a brave explorer about whom we were taught to say, “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937 and is celebrated on the second Monday in October. Several states have opted to celebrate “Indigenous Peoples Day” in lieu of Columbus Day for obvious reasons. 

Veterans Day … was established as a national holiday in 1938 to honor veterans of all wars. In 1975 President Gerald Ford designated November 11 as the official date of Veterans Day and if it falls on a weekend, then the government can move the holiday to the previous Friday or the following Monday.

Thanksgiving Day … most of us were taught that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of my late friend Mac Jamieson who owned Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, President Kennedy was compelled to officially recognize both states for the historic first. (for the record, Berkeley’s feast pre-dated Plymouth by over a year). Thanksgiving as a federal holiday always falls on the fourth Thursday of November. It became a national holiday in 1863.

Christmas Day …  is the only religious holiday recognized by the federal government. It was designated as a national holiday in 1870. That raises the question, “Why aren’t there federal holidays for other religions?” According to the North Carolina Department of Human Resources, state agencies “shall make efforts to accommodate an employee’s request to be away from work for certain religious holiday observances, however, nothing shall obligate the agency to make accommodations if, in accommodating the request, it would result in undue hardship on the agency or its employees.”

Speaking of North Carolina, that brings me to the trivia question that I posed earlier. In this state, agencies are not obligated to give a paid holiday for either Juneteenth or Columbus Day. Moreover, the North Carolina Human Resources Act establishes, “a holiday schedule that will not exceed 12 paid holidays per year, and will include Martin Luther King’s birthday, Veterans Day, and three days for Christmas.” To date, 28 states now make Juneteenth a paid holiday, and until the HRA is revised, most of our state agencies are allowing employees to take June 19 as a floating holiday.

There has been some debate over the years about the cost of paid holidays to businesses and industries that pay for work that they aren’t getting. In that regard, if ever there was a serious movement to reduce the number of paid holidays, I would be OK with getting rid of Columbus Day and Presidents Day, and I would combine Veterans Day and Memorial Day into one holiday that honors all Vets. For now, though, I’m OK with the holidays we have, just so long as we don’t add another one that celebrates circumcision.


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