United States

United States facts and information about the country.


For millennia the land that is now the continental United States was covered with forests, prairies, and deserts, and millions of native people called Amerindians, Native Americans, or American Indians lived here. While it is likely that navigators or those lost at sea from other continents, including Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia had found their way to the Western Hemisphere, archaeologists know from their artifacts and dwellings that peoples from Asia had crossed to the North American continent on a land bridge called Beringia before the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. By the time Europeans began to investigate the western continents in earnest, the Native Americans had populated the continents from the Arctic to the tip of South America and from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, and had founded numerous civilizations, including the Olmec, the Toltec, the Maya of Central America and Mexico, the Aztec of Mexico and southwestern North America, the Inca of western South America, the Anasazi, the Mound Builders, the Sioux Nations (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota), and the Six Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy.

The first Europeans were probably Norsemen (sometimes confused with the Vikings, who were pirates) led by Leif Eriksson (? b. 980), who worked their way south from Greenland and Iceland, following the North Atlantic coastline, and made at least three landings around 1006.

The Iroquois Confederacy

One of the strongest political forces in 17th- and 18th-century New England was the Iroquois Confederacy, more properly the Haudenosaunee (or League of Peace and Power, Five Nations, or Six Nations), a group of First Nations/Amerindians who lived in present-day upstate New York when they had contact with the first colonists. According to tradition, two prophets, the Great Peacemaker (in Mohawk, Skennenrahawi) and his student, Hiawatha, urged the squabbling tribes to stop their infighting and join together in peace. At first there were five nations—the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Mohawks—until a sixth nation, the Tuscarora, of what is now North Carolina, joined them in 1720. The Haudenosaunee had a constitution, recorded with wampum, beads with their own spiritual value, and said to have influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution (although this is disputed).

Haudenosaunee, in addition to being the name of the Six Nations, is how the people refer to themselves and to the combined leadership of the nations. It means “people building a long house,” and was provided by the Great Peacemaker when the group came together. The word Iroquois is thought to be derived from a French version of a Huron (Wendat) or Algonquin name that means “black snakes,” and is regarded as an insult. (The Huron and Algonquin were enemies of the Iroquois because they were also involved in the fur trade.) The Seneca were symbolically the guardians of the western door of the “tribal long house,” while the Mohawk were guardians of the eastern door.

After a protracted period of reconnaissance and unsuccessful colonization begun in the 16th century, colonists from England, Holland and Sweden settled along the Atlantic coast beginning in the early 1600s. By the middle of the 18th century, British North America encompassed mature colonies from New England to Georgia and a colonial population of 2.5 million.

Following the French and Indian War, in which Britain defeated France and in 1763 claimed a great deal of French North American territory, tensions began to rise between Britain’s colonists and their government. Colonists resented being asked to pay higher taxes to support the British military, especially as they had no representation in the mother country’s government. They also sought to expand their settlements across western borders Britain had agreed to respect in treaties with Native Americans.

In 1775 these tensions erupted at Lexington and Concord in the area that is now the state of Massachusetts, and on July 4, 1776, the rebels declared the independence of “the United States of America” from Great Britain. That event is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. The new nation’s freedom was won in the American Revolutionary War, which officially ended in 1783. In 1787 a new government structure was drafted in Philadelphia and then ratified by the states. The new nation’s Constitution established it as a democratic republic with powers balanced between the three branches of the federal government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and the individual states. In 1791 the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were approved. Commonly known as the Bill of Rights, these amendments further establish the basic rights and principles of liberty and justice in the United States—among them, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to due process, trial by jury, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The new nation grew rapidly and began stretching beyond its colonial borders past the Appalachian Mountains and into territory held by Native American tribes and foreign powers. The Americans would gradually push these groups off their land, through battle or treaty. Today Native Americans remain but are a small minority, many living on land reserved for them by the federal government. In 1803 the United States acquired the vast Louisiana territory from France, which had colonial holdings throughout North America, and following a war with its southern neighbor Mexico in 1848, the continental United States had nearly expanded to its current borders. Alaska was acquired from Russia in 1867, and Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898. As the nation expanded westward, and as commercial and industrial development produced burgeoning cities, immigrants from around the world rushed to the United States seeking economic, religious, and political freedom and opportunity.

However, the thousands of Africans who came to America between the 17th and 19th centuries came unwillingly, in chains, as slaves, crowded together in the filthy holds of the ships that transported them. Through importation and natural increase, the slave population of the United States stood at nearly 4 million by the mid19th century. Eventually the largely free states of the North and the “slave states” of the South split over the issue of slavery’s expansion to the nation’s western territories. Eleven southern states seceded from the union and went to war with the North. The Civil War (1861–65) was the most traumatic event in the country’s history, but victory for the North restored


As he worked his way south along the North Atlantic coast, Leif Eriksson’s first landing is thought to have been at what he named Helluland (“Land of the Flat Stones”) because there were so many flat rock slabs (Old Norse hellr), which has been tentatively identified as present-day Baffin Island. He described his second stop as a flat, wooded region with white sandy beaches, which he called Markland (“woodland”), thought to have been present-day Labrador. At their third landfall, which Leif named Vinland because the grass was green year-round (Old Norse vinjameans “meadow” or “grazing area”), he and his men decided to attempt a settlement and built some houses. Because it was pleasant, with a mild climate and lots of salmon in the river, they remained for the winter.

Like many other ancient stories once discounted as legends, fables, or myths, Leif Eriksson’s story, recorded in the Icelandic sagas, is probably essentially factual although, perhaps, embellished to some degree. In the 1950s and 1960s explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife and archaeologist Anne Stine may have found the remains of the Vinland settlement at the tip of present-day Newfoundland, later known as L’Anse aux Meadows (from French L’Anse-aux-Méduses, which means “Jellyfish Cove”). The first recorded conflicts between Europeans and indigenous peoples may have occurred around 1006 at that site. The Norse sagas report that the indigenous people whom Eriksson and his men encountered were insurmountably fierce and that the explorers decided to leave. Those inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador, who called themselves Beothuk (which meant “the people”), were probably the natives called skraelings, or skraelingars, by the Norsemen. (By the 19th century they were extinct.)

In 1957, a map called the Vinland Map turned up, purportedly a 15th-century Mappa Mundi, redrawn from a 13th-century original. If it is authentic (and some scholars think it is a fake) its importance would be that, in addition to showing the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe, the map depicts a body of land across the Atlantic called Vinland and describes it as having been visited in the 11th century. Should the map be confirmed as genuine, it would add further support to the archaeological evidence that Viking explorers found and mapped the Western Hemisphere before Columbus did.

the union and ended slavery, although it would be decades before the achievements of the civil rights movement would bring a measure of freedom to African-Americans.

United States victories in World War I and World War II left it the most powerful nation in the world, militarily and economically. In the 21st century it remains so, although it faces numerous challenges, including the continued threat of terrorism following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the strains of its ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the decline of its economic strength, its failure to confront the dangers inherent in global warming, and the ineffectiveness of its international diplomacy.


The United States is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. Alaska sits to the northwest, bordered by Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south. Hawaii lies in the South Pacific. The United States is the world’s third largest country, after Russia and Canada. As befits a nation that stretches across a continent, the United States enjoyed a diverse geography for many years. When the first Europeans arrived, the territory featured large rivers and plentiful water, abundant natural resources, and some of the world’s most productive farmland. The eastern United States is home to the Appalachian mountain ranges as well as forests, wetlands, and popular beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. The nation’s largest river, the Mississippi, bisects the country as it runs from the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes, the Great Lakes, in the North to the Gulf of Mexico in the South, creating fertile farmland as it flows. The vast plains environment of the Midwest supports forests in the north and crops and livestock in the nation’s midsection. The Rocky Mountains of the West form North America’s largest and youngest mountain system, and a region dominated by lumber and mining interests. The landforms of the dry Southwest are some of the most unusual in the world, including the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon. The western coast features evergreen forests to the north and, to the south, California’s craggy coastline and fertile agricultural valleys.

The nation’s climate ranges from the arctic chill of the Alaskan winter to the dry heat of the Southwest and the tropical South Pacific conditions of Hawaii. Most of the continental United States is moderate and temperate. The Northeast and Midwest have cold winters and hot summers, while the

South has longer summers and milder winters. The Pacific region has a generally mild climate yearround, except for the desert areas of the West and Southwest. The mostly favorable climate has influenced population shifts, most recently toward the Sunbelt region in the South, but the eastern and western coastlines remain more densely populated than much of the country’s center. In 2005 one of the worst hurricane seasons since records have been kept, New Orleans, Louisiana, once a vital U.S. port, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and its population scattered across the country.


The United States has the world’s largest economy. Its gross domestic product (GDP), or the value of all goods and services produced each year, is $11.75 trillion. It is an economy based on a free-market, capitalist system, leaving most decisions to individuals and businesses, although the government imposes various regulations to maintain competition in important industries, to protect consumers from unsafe products, to ensure environmental health, and to protect workers from dangerous workplace environments. The country has enormous natural resources, yet it still imports more supplies, including oil, to meet its needs. The country has large deposits of coal, iron, oil, and natural gas, as well as wide expanses of fertile farmland, and forests that once covered nearly a third of its total area. Fish is plentiful off the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic coast.

Still service industries account for the largest share of the nation’s GDP, spread among such industries as health care, tourism, banking, insurance, and retail sales. The largest stock exchange in the nation is the New York Stock Exchange, and the Chicago Board of Trade is the world’s leading commodities exchange. The country’s largest trade partners include Canada and Mexico, its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as well as Japan and China. The government itself purchases a fifth of all goods and services produced in the United States. U.S. companies have long been world leaders in technological fields including computers, medicine, and military equipment. Other major exports include cars and airplanes, manufacturing equipment, paper, metal ores, and chemical products. The nation’s farmers and ranchers produce all the food its people need, with enough left over to export grain, fruit, and other products. Beef is the nation’s most valuable farm product although the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) may change that. As a center of world business and trade, the United States has four of the world’s five busiest airports, as well as leading ports such as New York City; Miami, Florida; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Long Beach, California.


The United States was once called a “melting pot” because it is, and has always been, a nation of immigrants. The nation was founded by settlers from Western Europe, but over the years people from all over the world have come together to form a diverse, distinctive culture. Today, about one in ten Americans was born outside the country. Recent immigrants come from Mexico and other Latin American countries; Canada; central Europe; and the Philippines and other Asian nations. Many immigrant populations retain the traditions of their homelands, seen most clearly in the nation’s large cities, where various ethnic groups have tended to settle in the same neighborhoods, with shops, restaurants, and celebrations reflecting their distinct cultures.

Almost all Americans can speak English, but many Hispanic immigrants, especially in the Southwest, speak only Spanish, by far the second most widely spoken language in the country. Some states have passed laws declaring English the only official language for their governments, but in many cities, public documents and important signs are produced in both English and Spanish. Just as immigrants are drawn to U.S. cities, so are native-born citizens. Three out of four Americans now live in urban areas, and Americans from rural areas continue to move to larger cities for the range of educational, professional, and cultural opportunities available there.

However, in a recent shift, more people now live in the suburban areas surrounding big cities than in the city centers themselves. In the nation’s rural areas, only one in ten adults actually works on farms. Major advances in technology have eased the labor involved with maintaining crops and left much of the work to machines and agribusiness. For some Americans the quality of life is among the highest in the world. However, poverty both in cities and rural areas, and an increasing chasm in wealth between the nation’s richest and poorest citizens, remain major challenges for the nation. The United States has long considered itself to be a meritocracy based in large part on educational achievement. About three-quarters of U.S. children attend public elementary and high schools, although private secular and religious schools are available in most communities as well. About one in five Americans completes at least four years of college.

Americans are a mobile people and have had a long love affair with the automobile. Of all modern inventions, the automobile is the one Americans say they could least live without. Today 60 percent of American households own two or more cars, and 20 percent own three or more. Americans from all walks of life are able to experience high culture at some of the nation’s thousands of museums, including world-class art collections in cities like Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. Religion has always been an important part of American culture. The nation was built in part by people escaping Europe to find religious freedom, and the Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all while prohibiting the government establishment of any particular faith. More than half of all Americans belong to various Protestant denomnations, but Catholics are the largest single religious group. Most Americans have leisure time and disposable income available to invest in it, and they pursue a wide range of interests, including sports. Major spectator sports include wrestling and auto racing, and games invented in the United States, such as football (not to be confused with soccer or rugby), basketball, and baseball.

Many Americans also regularly exercise in fitness centers, run, or participate in team sports like soccer or basketball. For entertainment, almost every U.S. home has at least one television, and millions of people see a movie in a theater each week. The United States is the world leader in movie production, with major films premiering simultaneously across the globe. When Americans go on vacation, they may travel around the world, although the beaches and national parks of the United States remain leading destinations. America’s cultural legacy includes the musicians who created jazz and modern musical theater, sometimes referred to as Broadway after the street where many of the theaters are located. American authors, architects, singers, and painters are widely respected around the world.

Americans annually gather to celebrate national holidays based on their history and culture. When they shoot off fireworks on the Fourth of July, they celebrate “the great experiment” that has drawn a diverse people together to form a world power.


Food in the United States is influenced by two factors: Its historically diverse immigrant population, which has introduced a wide variety of dishes; and the nation’s abundance of meat and fish, dairy, and produce, which offers a wide range of possibilities for cooks.

Breakfasts are drawn from a wide range of fruits, juices, breads, cheeses, or cereals. Eggs and bacon or sausage are also popular. Sandwiches are a popular lunch item, often made with meat, cheese, or peanut butter. Meat and potatoes with salad or vegetables remain a typical dinner for many families, who can choose from beef, chicken, ham, or turkey. Fish is also popular as a main course, especially in fishing regions, as are pizza and pasta. Cookies, ice cream, pies, and cakes are popular desserts. Soft drinks such as colas are the nation’s most popular beverages.

Coffee, milk, and beer are also widely popular. The U.S. is known for its wines as well, especially those produced in California and the Northwest. Families eat out often, and the nation’s restaurants offer popular dishes from nearly every spot on earth. Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and French food have long been mainstays, but in recent years Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Middle Eastern food have all gained in popularity. Various regions of America have their own distinct cuisines, such as Pennsylvania Dutch country (German), Louisiana (Cajun), and Hawaii (Polynesian).

The creativity of U.S. cooks should not be underestimated, because Americans have invented some of the most popular foods in the world, especially those that are quick, portable, and cheap, such as hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream cones, and iced tea.

Sometimes the story of how a food was created is as well known as the food. Although other countries, in particular Hamburg, Germany, have claimed the hamburger as their own invention, what is called a hamburger probably originated in the late 19th century in the United States. Inventing the hamburger sandwich, a flattened patty of ground beef, is perhaps attributable to Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin. In 1885 he was selling fried meatballs at the Outagamie County Fair, but his customers found it hard to eat them while walking, so Nagreen flattened the meatball between two slices of bread and called it a hamburger. The distinctive hamburger bun is said to have been invented by a short-order cook J. Walter Anderson in 1916, who went on to found the White Castle restaurant chain in 1921.

The invention of the hot dog, like the hamburger and ice cream cone, is often attributed to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, but similar sausages were made in Germany as early as 1864; the earliest appearance of a hot dog bun dates back to New York City in the 1860s. The summer favorite, a hot dog at the baseball game, also predates the 1904 Exposition: The owner of the St. Louis Browns Chris von der Ahe was selling them at his ballpark in the 1880s. Like the hot dog and hamburger, the ice cream cone is popularly believed to have been invented in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, although there are other claimants. According to legend a Syrian pastry maker Ernst Hamwi was selling zalabia, a crisp pastry cooked in a hot folding waffle-patterned press and dribbled with syrup, and came to the aid of an ice cream vendor, perhaps Arnold Fornachou or Charles Menches, who had run out of dishes. By rolling a still-warm zalabia into a cone, Hamwi created a pastry that could hold ice cream. And people could eat their ice cream as they strolled around the Exposition.

Tea, usually served hot, has been a favorite drink in many cultures, but iced tea, which is how most people drink the beverage in the United States, is also said to have originated in 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri.

Potato chips, not to be confused with British “chips,” are believed to have been invented by Native American George Crum, when he was chef at the Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York. On August 24, 1853, a customer—by some accounts Cornelius Vanderbilt—kept sending his fried potatoes back because, he said, they were too thick and soggy. To silence the man, Crum sliced the potatoes so thin that it was impossible to eat them with a fork. Crum was amazed when, instead of being angry, the guest was ecstatic about the thin fried chips, and they became a regular item on the lodge’s menu, where they were called Saratoga Chips.

Public/Legal Holidays


Observed by:General Public Observed on:December 31–January 1 Most Americans celebrate the first day of the calendar year (according to the Gregorian solar calendar), as do people in countries around the world. In the United States, banks, schools, and businesses are closed. On the night of December 31, or New Year’s Eve, many Americans gather in cities to celebrate the start of the new year at midnight. The largest such event is in New York City’s Times Square, where hundreds of thousands of people watch a large ball drop down the side of a building at exactly 12:00 midnight. In some cities fireworks are set off at midnight. Celebrations continue on New Year’s Day at events like the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, featuring marchers in colorful costumes, or the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, which precedes college football’s annual Rose Bowl game. Privately many Americans make resolutions on New Year’s Day to improve themselves in some way or to break bad habits.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:Third Monday in January Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929. After his assassination in 1968, a campaign to turn his birthday into a national holiday began. In 1983 Congress made his birthday a federal holiday, first celebrated on January 20, 1986. The day commemorates King as an African-American hero and as a great American crusader for equality and social justice. The holiday is observed in all the states on the third Monday in January. Government offices and schools close for the day, although many businesses remain open.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:Third Monday in February George Washington (1732–99) became the commanding general during the American Revolution and almost immediately assumed mythic status, embodying the new nation itself. Under the new federal Constitution, Washington was elected the first president of the United States and served from 1789 to early 1797. Americans began celebrating Washington’s birthday (February 22) during his lifetime; in the early 19th century, with the exception of Independence Day, it was the country’s only national holiday.

The day was renamed Presidents’ Day and moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February 1971 when the Monday Holiday Law of 1968 took effect. Many states also honor President Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12, 1809, and is sometimes considered the greatest U.S. president for his role as the Great Emancipator during the Civil War. After his assassination in 1865, many states designated Lincoln’s birthday as a holiday. Celebration of Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays are now combined into Presidents’ Day, or Washington-Lincoln Day. Banks, government offices, and schools are closed. In many areas the day is the beginning of a week-long public school vacation. Many stores hold special Presidents’ Day sales.


In some southern states, a separate Confederate Memorial Day honors those who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana observe the holiday on various dates. Tennessee calls its holiday Confederate Decoration Day. Texas calls it Confederate Heroes Day.

Observed by:General Public Observed on:Last Monday in May On Memorial Day Americans honor the men and women who have died fighting for the United States. The holiday emerged through grassroots efforts in both the North and South as Americans struggled to assuage their grief following the Civil War, the most devastating event in U.S. history, which cost more than 600,000 lives. Some credit Waterloo, New York, with the first official observance on May 5, 1866. In the 21st century the holiday honors those who died in all American wars. The holiday is also known as Decoration Day, because tradition calls for decorating the graves of servicemen with flowers and flags. Banks, schools, and government offices are closed. Many U.S. towns hold parades and special programs that often include a reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Volunteers sell small artificial red poppies to raise money for disabled veterans. To honor naval dead, miniature boats filled with flowers are set afloat from some U.S. port cities.


Observed by:General Public Observed on: July 4 On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, in which “the thirteen united States of America” declared their independence from their colonial ruler Great Britain. The Congress actually resolved to declare independence on July 2, but the Declaration was officially adopted on July 4. John Adams correctly predicted that Independence Day, also called the Fourth of July, would “be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great Anniversary Festival,” although he thought July 2 would mark the nation’s birthday. The Declaration of Independence is among the most cherished U.S. documents, particularly for its statements that “all men are created equal” and all are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Traditional Independence

Day celebrations featured readings of the Declaration and inspired Americans to pursue and achieve equality, even those—such as millions of slaves before the Civil War—who did not yet possess the freedom to which they were entitled. Government offices, banks, and businesses are closed. In many cities, the day is marked with concerts, parades, and public fireworks displays. One of the largest is in Boston, where the Boston Pops orchestra has performed before fireworks on the Charles River since 1974. Many individuals also set off fireworks, although the sale of fireworks is illegal in many parts of the country. Like the United States, many countries celebrate the day they became independent from oppressive regimes or colonial rulers.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:First Monday in September Labor Day, also celebrated as May Day or Workers’ Day in other countries, was created to honor working people and their contributions to their countries. The first Labor Day parade took place in New York City on September 5, 1882, and was followed by a big picnic. The event was not sanctioned by employers but was, instead, a huge, festive, one-day general strike to assert labor’s power, build solidarity among workers, and advocate better wages and working conditions. Many recognize as its founders two men, machinist Matthew Maguire of New Jersey and carpenter Peter McGuire of New York. Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day a legal holiday in 1887, and it became a national holiday in 1894.

Many countries celebrate Labor Day on May 1, a holiday with a more radical meaning and agenda. In 1889 the Second International, a consortium of socialist organizations, declared May 1 a day to recognize the importance of workers around the world, and scheduled the first demonstrations and celebrations for the following year, 1890. They coordinated this observance with the strike called by the U.S. labor union the American Federation of Labor (AFL), demanding an eight-hour workday.

In the United States banks, government offices, and schools are closed. While labor groups still organize parades and events in many areas, for most Americans the holiday marks the end of summer and a time for leisure. Families often take a last long vacation weekend before the start of the school year, which traditionally takes place two or three days after Labor Day.

See alsoVolume III: LABORDAY


Observed by:General Public Observed on: Second Monday in October Columbus Day marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) first voyage to the

Western Hemisphere in 1492. Some cities hold parades on Columbus Day, but for many Americans it is simply part of a long weekend. The first Columbus Day celebration was in New York City in 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. In the 19th century Irish, Italian, and later, Hispanic American immigrants promoted the holiday in celebration of Columbus—a Catholic, non-English hero—to declare their own legitimacy as Americans. Columbus Day has been a federal Monday holiday, observed on the second Monday in October, since 1971; it is an official holiday for federal employees and residents of Washington, D.C., but it is not observed by every state or private businesses, and many people work on Columbus Day. Hawaii celebrates the day as Discoverers’ Day, honoring Pacific and Polynesian explorers as well as Columbus. In Alabama American Indian Heritage Day is marked on the same day as Columbus Day.


Observed in:United States Observed by:General Public Observed on:October 31 While it is not an official holiday anywhere in the United States, Halloween is one of the country’s most popular celebrations, and Americans spend nearly $3 billion on Halloween-related goods each year. Millions of children put on costumes and go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, “trick-ortreating” for candy, or to raise money for the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), which aids needy children around the world. Adults gather for costume parties, and decorate their homes and offices with carved pumpkins known as jack-o-lanterns, as well as witches, ghosts, and other symbols of the holiday. The holiday has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, when it was believed the souls of the recent dead roamed the land, and worshippers honored the lord of death. In the eighth and ninth century, western European Christians replaced Samhain with All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1, but retained many of the old holiday’s customs. The night before the new holiday was called All Hallows’ Eve, and later, Halloween. The holiday gained popularity in the United States throughout the 19th century, as Irish immigrants popularized its customs. Today’s secular Halloween is far removed from its pagan origins, but the holiday is highly controversial in many parts of the United States, where a range of religious groups actively protest public schools holding Halloween-themed events.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:November 11 Veterans Day honors the men and women who have served in the U.S. military. It is a federal holiday observed nationwide and takes place on November 11, the day of the armistice that ended World War I in 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. In France, Belgium, and other European countries, the holiday is still known as Armistice Day. In Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, it is called Remembrance Day and honors all those who died in war. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) first declared the holiday in 1919. In 1954 its name was changed to Veterans Day. From 1971–77, it was celebrated as a Monday holiday, on the fourth Monday in October, but the change of date was unpopular among veterans, who believed the timing promoted leisure rather than solemn remembrance, so Congress moved Veterans Day back to November 11. In many U.S. cities veterans march in parades, and a special ceremony takes place at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:Fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving is a day set aside for people to give thanks for their families and whatever prosperity they may enjoy. The holiday has its origins in fall harvest festivals held throughout history by farming societies, traditions that the European colonists brought with them to America. Thanksgiving observances are nearly universal, and other harvest festivals no doubt preceded the “first Thanksgiving” in Plymouth Colony in 1621. Nonetheless that event remains the holiday’s charter, as it celebrated the Pilgrims’ endurance, toleration, cooperation, abundance, and generosity and marked a longterm peace between them and their Wampanoag allies, who outnumbered the colonists at the three-day feast. Many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with their families, typically sharing a turkey dinner. Some attend church services to give thanks to God, or volunteer to feed the hungry. The Thanksgiving tradition evolved informally and spread into the West and South from New England in the 19th century. It became a national holiday in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln hoped it might be a force for reconciliation and declared that the last Thursday of November would be “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” In 1941 Congress formally set the federal Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.



Religious Holidays


Observed by:Muslims Observed on: Tenth of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar One of the two most important celebrations on the Muslim calendar (in addition to Eid al-Fitr), Eid alAdha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorates the patriarch Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son because God commanded it. According to the biblical account, Ibrahim was asked to sacrifice his son (in Muslim tradition, the son to be sacrificed is Ishmael—Isaac in the Judeo-Christian tradition), but God intervened, and an angel stopped the sacrifice, directing Ibrahim to sacrifice a lamb instead. As part of this day-long festival, an animal is sacrificed, and one-third of the meat is given to the poor. Muslim families exchange gifts and enjoy a feast. The holiday occurs on the last day of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. In the United States, this date varies because the Islamic lunar calendar makes no corrections to align it with the Gregorian, solar calendar used there.

See also Volume III: EID AL-ADHA; ISLAM


Observed by:Christians Observed on:Friday before Easter Good Friday, also known as Mourning Friday, Black Friday, or Great Friday (in Eastern Orthodox Churches), marks the day that Jesus died on the Cross and is observed on the Friday before Easter,

the central holiday on the Christian calendar. Many Christians attend a special service mourning Jesus, which traditionally lasts from noon until 3 P.M., representing the three hours that Jesus suffered on the Cross. Some Christians observe Good Friday, especially Roman Catholics, as a fast day in mourning for Jesus. This day is an aliturgical day in the Catholic Church, so Communion is not observed. Church bells are silenced, and lights in churches may be dimmed.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:First Sunday after Lent Easter, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus three days after his Crucifixion, is the most important holiday on the Christian calendar, and the culmination of the Christianity’s Holy Week. Easter also marks the end of the 40-day fasting period of Lent. The date of Easter is based on the lunar calendar. The exact date each year is set to be observed on the Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. Depending on the denomination, churches hold services on Saturday evening, at sunrise on Sunday, or on Sunday morning. Families gather on Easter Sunday for a festive meal, often featuring lamb, a symbol of Jesus, who is sometimes called “the Lamb of God.” Symbols of the holiday include lilies, candles, and rabbits (or hares).

Easter is also a celebration of spring, and Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, while having no direct connection to the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, are both symbols of fertility appropriate to the season. According to the Venerable Bede (672–735), a renowned Christian scholar, Easter was named after Eostre (or Eastre), the Mother Goddess of the Saxon tribes of Northern Europe who was also the goddess of fertility. The ancient deities in all civilizations had patron animals, and the rabbit, an obvious symbol of fertility, is the companion animal of Eostre. The deity was believed to preside over conception and birth in animals, including humans, and pollination, flowering, and the ripening of fruit in the plant kingdom. After the harsh dreary winters of Northern Europe, she brought the warmth of spring, fertility, and abundance. The Germans knew her as Ostara.

Many families paint the shells of hard-boiled eggs and hide them for children to find in an Easter Egg Hunt. Some people also wear new clothes on Easter, another symbol of the new life symbolized by Jesus’ Resurrection. In some communities, people put on their finest clothes and march in an Easter parade.




Observed by: Jews Observed on:Begins on the 15th of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar Pesach, or Passover, is an eight-day festival celebrating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, probably around 1200 B.C.E. As with other Jewish holidays, the date is based on the Jewish lunar calendar and varies from year to year, but always takes place in March or April. Passover is celebrated in the home with a feast called a seder, in which families retell the story of the Exodus from a book called the Haggadah. Some families hold seders on each of the first two nights of Passover while others have a seder only on the first night. During Passover, many Jews eat matzo, unleavened bread, which symbolizes the bread that did not have enough time to rise as the Jews fled Egypt.

See also Volume III: JUDAISM; PESACH


Observed by: Jews Observed on:First two days of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, observed over two consecutive days during which Jews attend synagogue services marking the beginning of 10 days of penitence, or repentance and spiritual renewal, which culminate on Yom Kippur. The name means “head of the year.” The date of the holiday, which like all Jewish festivals begins on the previous evening, is based on the Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar, and can vary widely (but always occurs in September of October of the Western calendar). In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah begins God’s annual judging of all human beings, when he decides who will live and die in the year ahead, a judgment concluded on Yom Kippur. During services, a ram’s horn (called a shofar) is sounded, as it was in ancient times to announce important events. When families gather to share a meal on the holiday, many dip apples in honey, a tradition symbolizing hope for a sweet year ahead.




Observed by: Jews Observed on:Tenth of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar Yom Kippur is the holiest holiday on the Jewish calendar, a fast day devoted to atonement for the sins of the past year, and a day on which Jews believe that God completes his judgment of humanity, deciding who will live and die in the year to come. Jews attend a special synagogue service and begin their fast at sundown the evening before the holiday and then attend services throughout the day until sundown on Yom Kippur, when a ram’s horn called the shofar is blown to mark the end of the 10 days of penitence that began on Rosh Hashanah. The date of the holiday is based on the Jewish lunar calendar and can vary widely, although it always occurs in September or October of the Gregorian calendar. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sometimes called “the high holidays” because of their importance. In some U.S. cities, schools are closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and few Jews work during the holiday.




Observed by:Muslims Observed on:First of Shawwal, the 10th month of the Islamic calendar During the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, many Muslims do not eat or drink between sunrise and sundown, focusing their attention on study of the Koran. In Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad received the first of the revelations that make up the Koran during Ramadan. The joyous Feast of Fast-Breaking (Eid al-Fitr) takes place on the first day following Ramadan and signals the end of the month-long dawn-to-dusk fast. The date is based on the Islamic calendar, which is lunar and not aligned with the Western solar calendar, so the date varies and can occur in any season. On the first day of Eid al-Fitr, children dress in new clothes and receive gifts, while families share a special meal, often featuring sweet foods made with dates and honey. The Koran forbids fasting on this day.

See also Volume III: EID AL-FITR; ISLAM;



Observed by: Jews Observed on: Twenty-fifth of Kislev; the ninth month of the Jewish calendar The eight-day holiday of Hanukkah commemorates a victory for religious freedom. In about 165 B.C.E., a successor to Alexander the Great (356–23) turned away from the religious freedom Alexander had extended to the lands he conquered by banning Judaism and desecrating the Jewish Temple in Israel. A Jewish military revolt succeeded in restoring the Temple, and religious freedom. According to tradition, when the Temple was liberated, there was only enough oil available to provide light for one day, but it lasted for eight days. That miracle is what Jews celebrate on Hanukkah. They light an additional candle on an eight-branch candleholder called a menorah in their homes each night. Hanukkah, which is not the most significant holiday on the Jewish calendar, receives a great deal of attention in the United States due to its proximity to Christmas, and its adopted custom of giving gifts to children each night. The holiday’s date is based on the Jewish lunar calendar but usually takes place in December. Fried potato pancakes called latkes and a children’s game played with a top called a dreidel are also part of the celebration for many Jewish families.



Observed by:Christians Observed on:December 24–25 Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, has been the most important religious festival in Western countries for at least 1,000 years. It is the only religious holiday that is an official holiday in the United States; businesses close, and Christian families attend church services, before returning to their homes to exchange gifts and enjoy a festive meal. No one knows the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but it has been observed on December 25, replacing pagan festivals that celebrated the winter solstice, since at least the fourth century. It is the happiest and busiest holiday of the year for many Americans. Most families purchase a large Christmas tree (typically a fir or other evergreen) to decorate and assemble gifts for each other around its base. Many cities also put large Christmas trees on display. Some families decorate their homes with Christmas lights and hang wreaths on their front doors; inside, mistletoe and stockings hung for Santa Claus to bring presents for children. Some children write letters to Santa Claus, telling him what gifts they want to receive. Groups of people stroll from house to house singing traditional Christmas carols, some dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the most popular songs in U.S. history also have Christmas themes, including “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.”



Observed by:African-Americans Observed on:December 26–January 1 Some African-Americans follow their observance of Christmas with the holiday of Kwanzaa, an African-

American holiday that borrows some of the traditions of African harvest festivals. Kwanzaa is the Swahili word for “first fruits.” The holiday was developed in the United States in 1966 and has steadily gained in popularity. Kwanzaa lasts seven days, from December 26 through January 1. On each night families light a candle on a sevenbranched candleholder called a kinara. Each candle stands for one of seven principles: unity, self-determination, responsibility, cooperation, purpose, creativity, and faith. Some families exchange homemade gifts, and on one night during the holiday many families share a festive meal called kamaru, featuring traditional African foods.



Regional Holidays


Observed in: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida Observed by:General Public Observed on:Day before Lent Nearly a million tourists from around the world descend on New Orleans, Louisiana, each year for the celebration of Mardi Gras, held on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, when Christians make confession and receive forgiveness. The event dates back to Roman traditions of holding a celebration before a fast, and Mardi Gras, a French phrase meaning “Fat Tuesday,” marks the end of a Carnival season that begins on January 6, or the Twelfth Night of the Christmas season.

French colonists introduced the custom to New Orleans in the early 1700s, and it is now a holiday in parts of four states. While similar celebrations take place in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, the biggest party is in New Orleans, where colorful parades begin winding through the city’s streets a week before Mardi Gras. Local groups called krewes organize the parades, in which masked riders on floats toss necklaces, toys, and candy to spectators.



Observed in: United States Observed by: General Public Observed on: February 14 Valentine’s Day, an annual celebration of romance, is not an official holiday anywhere in the United States, but it is a celebration of enduring popularity for children and adults in almost every community. Americans exchange 200 million Valentine’s Day cards, or “valentines,” annually, and spend billions on flowers and candy. Children traditionally exchange small valentines and candies with each other in school, and classrooms and offices are decorated with images of hearts and cupids. Scholars trace the holiday’s origins to the Roman festival Lupercalia, which had a fertility theme and whose customs were widely adopted in Rome’s British outpost. Other sources include early Christian commemorations of saints, of which at least two were named Valentine. A third-century priest with that name is said to have conducted secret weddings in defiance of the Roman emperor’s orders forbidding clergy from marrying young men fated to be soldiers. A different Valentine is said to have befriended many children before he was imprisoned for refusing to worship Roman gods, and so youngsters slipped loving notes between the bars of his cell. In 496, February 14 became Valentine’s Day by papal dictate. The British have celebrated the holiday since at least the 15th century, and brought its customs to America.


Observed in:Texas Observed by:General Public Observed on:March 2 On March 2, 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico with a declaration signed at Washington-on-the-Brazos. It became an independent nation for almost 10 years, until it joined the Union and became a state. March 2 is a state holiday, featuring civic celebrations and parades, including a series of events at Washington-on-the-Brazos, now a state historical park.


Observed in:Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah Observed by:General Public Observed on:March 31 César Chávez was born in Arizona in 1927. In 1962 he launched the United Farm Workers union, which in 1968 initiated a successful five-year nationwide boycott of California grapes that forced growers to improve conditions for the poor workers who picked the fruit. Chávez died in 1993, and his birthday became a holiday in California in 2000. It is now a holiday in seven states and several other cities and counties nationwide. It is intended as a day to promote public


Observed in: Massachusetts, Maine, Wisconsin Observed by:General Public Observed on: Third Monday in April Patriots Day commemorates the first battle of the American Revolution, when “the shot heard ’round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. It is also the day of Paul Revere’s (1735–1818) famous ride to warn residents that British troops were approaching. The day became a holiday in Massachusetts on 1894, supplanting a holiday called Fast Day, a 200-year-old day of prayer and fasting that dated back to the state’s colonial days. Today Patriots Day is celebrated on the third Monday in April in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin. Reenactors in Massachusetts re-create Revere’s ride and the famous battle.


Observed in:New Mexico Observed by:General Public Observed on:Last weekend of April The annual Gathering of Nations American Indian Powwow at the University of New Mexico Arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the largest Native American powwow, or intertribal ceremonial gathering, in North America. Members of nearly 500 tribes and native groups come together during the last weekend of April to promote Native American culture and traditions with song, drumming, and dance performances, culminating in a dance circle featuring thousands of performers. The powwow also includes a marketplace, a dance competition, and a beauty pageant, and is a major social, political, and educational gathering for tribal leaders.


Observed in:Southwest States Observed by:General Public Observed on:May 5 Mexicans and Mexican Americans celebrate the holiday of Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for “May 5”), which commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over French invaders sent to conquer the country by Emperor Napoleon III (1808–73). The Mexicans, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza (1829–62), were victorious at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The French later won control of Mexico City, but the government it installed there had been forced out by 1867. Cinco de Mayo is not an official holiday anywhere in the United States, but it is celebrated by Mexican Americans and others with festive parties, parades, folk dances, and mariachi musical performances.


Observed in:Hawaii Observed by:General Public Observed on: June 11 Hawaiians have marked King Kamehameha Day since June 11, 1872. The holiday celebrates Kamehameha I (c. 1748–1819), who, according to Hawaiian tradition, fulfilled the prophecy that a warrior-king would come, unite the islands, and become their greatest chief. By 1810 he had done just that, creating the kingdom of Hawaii, and ruling it until his death. June 11 is believed to be the king’s birthday, although the date cannot be confirmed. Kamehameha Day celebrations include parades on every island, as well as fairs, sports events, and an international hula-dancing competition. Residents also cover the giant statue of Kamehameha on the main island of Hawaii with floral garlands called leis.


Observed in:Texas and a growing number of other states Observed by:General Public Observed on: June 19 During the course of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the states of the Confederacy, on January 1, 1863. However, news of the proclamation spread slowly in some parts of the South, as did news of General Robert E. Lee’s (1807–70) surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, that ended the war, with the result that many Texas slaves did not find out they had been emancipated until June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger (1822–76) read the proclamation to them in Galveston. That day is now the holiday of Juneteenth (a shortening of “June nineteenth”). The day has been marked by Texas’s African-American community since 1865, but the contemporary state holiday began in 1980. Communities in Texas and elsewhere mark the date with church thanksgiving services, picnics, and family reunions. One of the largest Juneteenth events outside Texas is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The observance is also called Emancipation Day or African-American Emancipation Day and is celebrated on different dates, depending on the region.

Rites of Passage


The birth of a child is a celebrated event in U.S. families. Parents of different faiths welcome their children into their religions in different ways. Roman Catholics and other Christian faiths christen infants in the church through the ritual of baptism, a symbolic washing with water that signifies the child’s entry into the religion. At christening ceremonies children are also formally named, although in practice most children receive their names before the ceremony. Other denominations, such as Baptists, do not baptize infants because they believe that baptism must always involve a public statement of faith by the person to be baptized.

Jewish boys are circumcised, usually on their eighth day of life, in a ceremony known as the brit milah. The ceremony can take place in a synagogue, but it often occurs in a family’s home and is performed by a person called a mohel. The circumcision is considered a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people established with the patriarch Abraham. Muslim families also circumcise infant boys.


When Jewish boys reach the age of 13, many take part in a ritual known as a bar mitzvah. Some denominations hold a similar ceremony for girls called a bat mitzvah. The name literally means “son (or daughter) of the law,” and it marks a young person’s entry into the adult community, including his or her responsibility for following all of the commandments of the religion. While no ceremony is required, many young people spend months studying a passage from the Torah that they will read in Hebrew in the synagogue on the day of their bar or bat mitzvah. Families typically throw a large party after a bar or bat mitzvah. Some Jews believe that these parties have become a conspicuous display of wealth that overshadows the spiritual aspects of the day.

Many Christian young people take part in a cer-

emony called a confirmation. For Roman Catholics, confirmation brings the grace of the Holy Spirit; for Protestants, it reinforces the entry into the faith promised at baptism. In many churches confirmation for young people also represents the culmination of several years of religious study.


Fun Fact

King Kamehameha Day is the only public holiday in the

United States celebrating a monarch.

Weddings are important legal and religious events for U.S. heterosexuals. Approximately 2.3 million weddings are held in the United States each year, although about 800,000 heterosexual couples end their marriages each year through the legal process of divorce. While some immigrant cultures retain the practice of arranged marriage, almost all heterosexual Americans choose their own spouse.

Americans have debated whether to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples so that they can enjoy the legal benefits and privileges accorded to heterosexual relationships. States set most rules for marriage in the United States, because marriage licenses are issued by the state governments. As of 2005 only the state of Massachusetts allowed samesex couples to marry legally. Hawaii, California, and Connecticut allow such couples to enter into partnerships in which both members receive many of the legal benefits of marriage, including access to a partner’s workplace benefits and inheritance rights. Vermont’s “civil unions” offer all of the state’s marriage benefits to same-sex couples but do not legally call the relationship a marriage. Several states and cities recognize the legal unions entered into in other states and extend similar benefits to couples joined in them.

Some Americans get married in civil ceremonies, typically in front of a judge, but for most couples, marriage is an important religious ceremony. Christian and Jewish couples are married by a priest, minister, or rabbi, and both faiths’ ceremonies involve a public declaration of commitment to the marriage, the presence of witnesses, and the exchange of rings, the latter a custom dating back at least to Roman times. Many couples write their own vows as substitutes or additions to the traditional wedding liturgy. Roman Catholic weddings take place during Mass, and the couple receives Communion.


American death customs share many elements with customs in other countries such as the public announcement of a death, a funeral ceremony, and a burial. These long-standing customs are designed to show respect and pay tribute to the dead, and to offer comfort to grieving survivors. Funeral directors usually prepare bodies for burial using the embalming process because funerals often take place several days after a death. However, Jewish funeral preparation differs as tradition requires burial no more than two nights after a death and forbids embalming.

In advance of a funeral, many families hold an all-night vigil beside the corpse. This is the Christian custom called the wake, although other religions have similar practices. Most funerals involve a public ceremony at a funeral home followed by the public burial of the deceased in a coffin at a cemetery. Many families, however, opt for cremation, which is the traditional practice of Buddhists and

Hindus, although Judaism and some Christian denominations discourage it. In the case of burials, a second, shorter ceremony is typically held at the graveside immediately before burial, after which many families return to a relative’s home to share a meal.

Further Reading

Hennig Cohen and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds., The Folklore of American Holidays (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1987); Matthew Dennis, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002); Barbara deRubertis, Martin Luther King Day: Let’s Meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Kane Press, 1993); Alice K. Flanagan, Chinese New Year (Minneapolis, Minn.: Compass Point Books, 2004); Rosemary Gong, Good Luck Life: The Essential Guide to Chinese American Celebrations and Culture (New York: Harper Resource, 2005); Maud Lavin, ed., The Business of Holidays (New York: Monacelli Press, 2004); Ellen M. Litwicki, America’s Public Holidays, 1865–1920 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 2000); Kathleen Minnick-Taylor, Kwanzaa: How to Celebrate It in Your Home (Madison, Wisc.: Praxis Publications, 1994); Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).


So empty here ... leave a comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *