Days off are a luxury in the US, so it’s no surprise that when the opportunity presents itself in holidays everyone grabs it with both hands! One thing to understand though about holidays is also that they aren’t standard, and how they are distributed to staff can be somewhat confusing if you were used to a regimented schedule before now.

The major difference is that in the U.S., there is no strict legal requirement to give holidays, at all. Every holiday you are given is negotiated when you apply for a job, however as you get more and more senior and established, you will find that there are some standards that most businesses adhere to.

Optional and floating holidays

This introduces the concept of a “floating” holiday, where you have the option to take off one or two extra days which you and your employer will agree on (potentially each and every time you want to take them). Instead of everyone being off on a particular day, you will take one of the floating holidays off, and others might take a different option throughout the year.

So, I thought it might be helpful to show you what holidays there are throughout the year, what they signify, who (normally) gets them, and most importantly explain what most people in New York City do for them!

New Year’s Day / January 1, 2021

Who gets New Year’s Day as a holiday? Generally, everyone gets this holiday. Sometimes (but rarely) New Year’s Eve is offered as a day off as well.

What is New Year? New Year’s Day, also called simply New Year’s or New Year, is observed on January 1, the first day of the year on the modern Gregorian calendar as well as the Julian calendar.

How is New Year celebrated in America? A day to relax, put your feet up, and welcome in the new year (hopefully not nursing too much of a headache from the night before). There are sometimes paradses, sports, and wholesome tv shows to watch.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day / January 18, 2021 (Third Monday of January)

Who gets MLK Day as a holiday? This one is a floating holiday. Some people do, some people don’t get it, or you might get an option at your work whether you want to use this as a day off or one of your other days.

What is Martin Luther King Day? Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around King’s birthday, January 15. 

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 until his assassination in 1968.

How is MLK Day remembered? As this holiday is relatively young, there aren’t quite the number of traditional observances however more recently schools and groups have taken it as a day of celebrating African American culture, civil rights movements, and the constant work required to move a country forward.

(George) Washington’s Birthday or President’s Day / February 15, 2021 (Third Monday of February)

Who celebrates President’s Day? Another floating holiday. Some people do, some people don’t get it, or you might get an option at your work.

What: Washington’s Birthday is a United States federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States, who was born on February 22, 1732. Today the nation typically combines Washington’s Birthday with Presidents’ Day, celebrating both days on the third Monday in February.

However, Presidents’ Day is not the official name of the holiday. The idea behind the name was to create a holiday that did not recognize a specific president, but rather celebrated the office of the presidency.

This joint recognition would also celebrate President Lincoln’s February 12 birthday within the same period, but arguably, George Washington (the “Father of the country”) deserves his own day (from here).

How is President’s Day celebrated? Some schools and groups may do things for this holiday, but many will simply treat it as a day off if they have the option.

Memorial Day / May 31, 2021 (Last Monday of May)

Who commemorates Memorial Day?: Generally, everyone gets this holiday. This is one of the bigger holidays in the US and is an official Federal Holiday.

What is Memorial Day about? Memorial Day or Decoration Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.

In the United States, Memorial Day’s purpose is to honor military members who have died, while Veterans Day recognizes the service of all America’s veterans.

How is Memorial Day remembered? Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries and you will notice that the flag of the United States is flown at half staff from dawn until noon.

While it’s a holiday, it’s more of a day of remembrance and is revered as such, so it’s important to keep that in mind when making plans.

Independence Day / July 4, 2021

Who celebrates Independence Day? Generally, everyone gets this holiday. This is probably the biggest day of partying in the US calendar. If the holiday falls on a weekend, then there is another day given off as a holiday throughout the week.

What is Independence Day? Independence Day is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

How is Independence Day celebrated? This day is a bit of a fun one because you’ll see a lot of people getting into the spirit of the holiday.

Red, white, and blue will be everywhere, marches are happening all over cities and towns, barbecues and grills are being lit and covered in hot dogs and burgers, and it is typically celebrated with friends.

Fireworks mark the end of the evening in most cities with a distinctly American feel.

Labor Day / September 6, 2021 (First Monday of September)

Who celebrates Labor Day? Generally, everyone gets this holiday.

What is Labor Day about? Labor Day in the United States of America is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September. It honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws, and well-being of the country.

How is Labor Day celebrated? Many people travel for Labor Day and find themselves in a warm place before the cold seasons hit. Long weekends away or a quiet week in the city is typical. It gets a little hectic on the streets and in major transport hubs because of all this movement but it’s a good opportunity to take a moment and enjoy a day off.

Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day / October 11, 2021 (Second Monday of October)

Who celebrates Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Floating holiday. Some people do, some people don’t get it, or you might get an option at your work.

What are Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day about? Columbus Day is a national holiday in many countries of the Americas and elsewhere that officially celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492. 

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a holiday that celebrates and honors the Indigenous peoples of America and commemorates their shared history and culture.

How are Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrated? Traditionally this day was celebrated as the founding of the Americas, however, in more recent times it has been updated to remember the indigenous people of the United States.

Many groups put on parades and events in public areas to show the rich history of the country’s indigenous people and use it as a day of education for younger people.

Veterans Day / November 11, 2021

Who commemorates Veterans Day? Floating holiday. Some people do, some people don’t get it, or you might get an option at your work.

What Veterans Day commemorates: Veterans Day is an official United States public holiday, observed annually on November 11, that honors military veterans; that is, persons who served in the United States Armed Forces.

In the United States, Memorial Day’s purpose is to honor military members who have died, while Veterans Day recognizes the service of all America’s veterans.

How is Veterans Day remembered? It is marked by parades and church services and in many places the American flag is hung at half-mast. A period of silence lasting two minutes may be held at 11am. It is a day where many veterans will come together and non-veterans are urged to support those who serve.

Thanksgiving Day / November 25, 2021 (Fourth Thursday of November)

Who celebrates Thanksgiving Day? Generally, everyone gets this holiday. In some states, the Friday after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday” is also a public holiday and given off. It’s a day of shopping deals and crazy scenes at some stores!

What is Thanksgiving Day all about? An annual national holiday marked by religious observances and a traditional meal including turkey. The holiday commemorates a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 and is held in the US on the fourth Thursday in November.

I think it’s important that you know this is the story told by most and how the holiday is celebrated in popular culture but it’s also very important that you know that there are more than a few issues with the story that you should be aware of (I mean, really the whole thing isn’t accurate or honest at all).

Please do have a read of “Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong” by Maya Salem at the New York Times, it’s important reading, and will keep you informed of what to know throughout the day.

How is Thanksgiving celebrated? Traditionally this is a day of family, and for those who don’t have family or are too far away from them, close friends.

Lunch is referred to as “dinner” and there is more food put on a table than those attending can possibly eat. There is football on TV, groups come together, food is shared, and a moment is taken to give thanks for what you have, and those who have helped you get there.

Christmas Day / December 25, 2021

Who celebrates Christmas? Generally, everyone gets this holiday. Note though that “Boxing Day” isn’t a thing the day after. Sometimes, Christmas Eve is offered as a day off as well.

Obviously, this holiday is a Christian holiday so you will find that it is not celebrated by a significant percentage of people, especially in cities with diverse populations.

What is Christmas all about? Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.

Understanding which holidays everyone gets and which are floating holidays

In summary, generally “everyone” gets:

  • New Year’s Day,
  • Memorial Day,
  • Independence Day (4th of July),
  • Labor Day,
  • Thanksgiving Day,
  • Friday after Thanksgiving, and
  • Christmas Day.

Then the ones that float are:

  • Washington’s Birthday or President’s Day, (Federal Holiday)
  • Good Friday,
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday, (Federal Holiday)
  • Veterans’ Day, (Federal Holiday)
  • Columbus Day/Indigenous Persons Day, and/or (Federal Holiday)
  • Christmas Eve, and/or New Year’s Eve.