The following background information is intended to provide the reader/teacher with a somewhat detailed explanation of nine holidays celebrated in the United States today. These selected holidays were chosen because each is associated with a particular group of people, such as Hispanic, African American, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, etc. These cohesive groups of individuals reflect the broad cultural diversity currently present in America.
Book suggestions for classroom use, research or pleasurable reading, are listed at the end of each holiday section. These book selections are fully credited and annotated in the bibliography.
Labor Day has come to mean parades, family celebrations, and the end of summer to many Americans. It has become not just a day, but a three day weekend event of outdoor activities with friends and picnic food. Hot dogs, hamburgers, salads, watermelon, soda, and beer are traditional favorites. The true meaning of Labor Day- to honor the working class of the country-tends to be lost in the festivities.
Peter J. Maguire, president and founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and joiners was a man who believed strongly in the dignity of the working man and the importance of his place in the industrialized United States. It was he who suggested that a day be set aside to honor the American working man. On September 5, 1882 ten thousand workers paraded in Union Square, New York and were reviewed by officials of their fraternal society, the Knights of Labor. Following the parade there were political speeches, fireworks. and a picnic. The celebration was a great success and was repeated the following year. In 1884 a resolution was passed by the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor designating the first Monday of September as Labor Day, and thus, it has become an annual event.
Celebrations The Complete Book of American Holidays
Celebrating America, A Cookbook
The Book of Holidays Around the World
Columbus day is celebrated each year on October 12 in memory of the discovery of the New World on that date in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. Celebrations are also held in Central and South America and parts of Canada. In Spain and Italy the day is marked with processions and church services. Columbus is credited with creating a permanent link between Europe and the New World. Columbus Day is the holiday that commemorates the discovery of North and South America.
There are some who think that Leif Ericson should be named as the person who "discovered" America. This Viking explorer landed on the coast of North America in about A.D. 1000. He tried to start a colony, but he and his men were driven away by the Native Americans who already lived there.
The first known celebration of the discovery of America was held by the Tammany Society, on October 12, 1792, in New York City. A monument was erected to Columbus and a dinner was given. Following this celebration there was increased recognition and popularity associated with Christopher Columbus. King's College, in New York became Columbia College in 1784 and the nation's capital was baptized the District of Columbia. The song "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" became well known. A statue of Columbus was placed in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The Italian citizens of Philadelphia provided the funds.
The first Catholic fraternal group, the Knights of Columbus, was organized
February 2, 1882. The efforts of the knights promoted having Columbus
Day eventually proclaimed a legal holiday.
The first legal celebration of Columbus Day in New York State was on October 12, 1909. A large parade, with the members of sixty Italian societies and the crews of two Italian ships, marched to Columbus Circle. The governor addressed the Knights of Columbus in Carnegie Hall while replicas of the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina were viewed on the Hudson River. In 1937 a proclamation was issued by President Franklin Roosevelt designating each October 12 as Columbus Day. He encouraged the people of the United States to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies in schools, churches, and other suitable places.
A native of Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus has become a popular hero of Italian Americans, and Columbus Day has become a patriotic occasion of importance.
Hanukkah is a festival which celebrates the first great victory for religious freedom won by the Jews more than two thousand years ago. The Syrian King Antiochus IV occupied Jerusalem, forcing the Jewish people to worship the Greek gods. He did not permit them to pray, to study the Torah, to celebrate Jewish holidays, or to practice Jewish customs. His soldiers made sure that the rules were obeyed. The Jews became very angry and decided to fight. For three years Judah the Maccabee led a rebellion against the Syrians. Even though the Greek army was bigger and had more weapons, the small brave Jewish army succeeded in pushing the Greeks out of Jerusalem and back to Syria. Then the Jewish people could worship freely again. When they returned to the Temple, they found it in disarray. Things inside were broken or missing, including the Menorah. The gardens were dry and the gates destroyed. The men cleaned and repaired the Temple. To rededicate the Temple they relit the Menorah and had a celebration. There was only enough oil to last for one day, but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days.
Today Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month Kislev (usually December). Families gather around the Menorah to celebrate the miracle. The Menorah is a religiously significant Jewish candelabra with a tree-like shape. The Hanukkah Menorah has nine branches, one for each of the eight celebration nights, and the remaining one to hold Shammash or "servant candle" which is used to light the other candles. Each evening candles are lit to celebrate the importance of freedom. There are blessings, songs, and special foods. The children receive gifts and play games. A traditional Hanukkah symbol is the dreydl, a four-sided top used for game playing. Long ago, dreydl playing was used as a disguise for the fact the Jews were really praying together in places where they were forbidden to practice their religion. Another symbol of Hanukkah is gelt, or a small amount of money, usually coins, given to the children during the eight days celebration of the "festival of lights".
A Jewish Holiday ABC
Eight Days of Hanukkah
Festivals for You to Celebrates
The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays
Christmas, the major festival in Christian countries, celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The season begins with Advent, the first Sunday in December, and continues through the Twelfth Night, on January sixth. The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, and for many centuries the celebration date was not set, often occurring on Epiphany. Later the Western church began to observe the birth at the end of December as a way of countering the pre-Christian festivals celebrated at that time of year. It is believed that Pope Julius I fixed the date of Christmas at December 25 in the fourth century.
Here in the United States, Alabama was the first state to grant legal recognition of Christmas, in 1836. By 1890 all states, including the District of Columbia, had acknowledged the legal date of the Christmas holiday.
The American celebration of Christmas has been influenced by the traditions brought by settlers who came from other lands. The singing of carols, the holly wreath, and the legend of mistletoe came from the English Druid festivals. In England, itinerant musicians walked through the streets and stopped to sing beneath windows. Mistletoe was hung in the temples to provide a winter refuge for the fairies and pixies, and became a symbol of fertility. The Germans are credited with contributing the Christmas tree, and with the introduction of the benevolent character, Kris Kringle, also known as Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas originated from the Dutch influence. He is said to represented a bishop of the early church, who devoted himself to the welfare of children. The Scandinavian influence on the celebration of Christmas is seen in Yuletide customs. Central to the Yuletide feast is the burning of the Yule Log, which evolved from the earlier custom of celebrating the winter solstice with a bonfire.
Traditional Christmas observances for many Christians, of all denominations, include midnight church services celebrating the birth of Christ. Often there is also an earlier church service in which children reenact the biblical story, playing the parts of the shepherds, the Three Wise Men, Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Carols are sung in unison by the congregation, and often the traditional "Oh Holy Night" is presented by a soloist accompanied on the church organ.
During the holiday, families gather in homes to share food, good cheer, and gift-giving. Community groups come together to provide food and gifts for those in need. Christmas morning is a busy and exciting time for households with young children. Little ones are encouraged to believe that Santa and his helpers spend all year in the North Pole making toys for "good boys and girls" to be delivered down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Children leave milk and cookies for Santa, and vegetable treats for his reindeer. Some families prefer to open gifts on Christmas eve and may attend church services or other functions on Christmas Day. The prevailing message of the season is one of goodwill to all men. However, for those individuals who are not able to experience the joys of the season, the Christmas holiday can be a time of letdown and melancholy due to unfulfilled expectations. Many American families succumb to the commercialism of the season, and treat Christmas as a major gift-giving event, forgetting the religious significance of the holiday.
The Christmas Tree
Waiting for Christmas
Countdown To Christmas
Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration observed by many African-Americans and their friends. It begins on December 26 and lasts through January 1. In 1966 the idea for Kwanzaa came from Dr. Maulana Karenga who was, at the time, a young history scholar. Dr. Karenga is now director of the African-American Cultural Center in Los Angeles. He teaches classes and directs the department of black studies at California State University.
Kwanzaa was created to remind people of their African history, culture, and customs. It celebrates ancestral values and honors black heritage. It is based on regional harvest celebrations in Africa. The word Kwanza comes from Swahili and means "the first fruits of harvest". It is said that the extra "a" was added to match the seven principles of Kwanzaa. At Kwanzaa celebrations, families and friends come together to share and give thanks.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa were established to encourage black unity. There is a different principle for each of the seven days. After sunset one colored candle is lit each evening. A black candle represents the people, three red candles signify their struggle, and the three green candles symbolize the hopes and dreams for the future. These three colors, red, black, and green make up the bars in the "bendera" or African flag.
The principles of Kwanzaa help people to learn, achieve, and grow. On the first day the black candle is lit to represent unity - living peacefully together as a family and community. A red candle is lit on the second day. It stands for self-determination - deciding on a course of action and making goals. Collective work and responsibility is the principle of the third day, when a green candle is lit. On the fourth day another red candle is used to symbolize cooperative economics - family savings and owning and operating businesses. Purpose is the principle of the fifth day when a second green candle is lit. The sixth day celebrates creativity- making or doing something in a unique way. The remaining red candle is lit on this day. On the last day of Kwanzaa the green candle is lit to represent faith to believe in oneself as well as others. The Kwanzaa feast and celebration commences on the seventh day. It is a time for sharing and rejoicing.
My First Kwanzaa Book
K is for Kwanzaa
Seven Candles for Kwanzaa,
Three Kings Day
Three Kings Day or El Dia de los Reyes Magos is celebrated on January 6. It may also be called the "Feast of the Three Kings". It commemorates the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem twelve days after the birth of the baby Jesus. Also referred to as The Epiphany (meaning appearance), or the Twelfth Night, it is one of the oldest Christian celebrations.
It is said that a brilliant star, shining in the west, led the three Wise Men to the manger. The first to arrive was Ethiopian and his name was Balthasar. The gift he carried was myrrh. The second was Melchior, an old Hindu with a long beard, bearing gold. Gaspar, a young Greek, was the last to arrive. He brought frankincense as his gift to the "newborn King".
The anniversary of this holy night is celebrated today with feasting and rejoicing. Creches are carefully arranged in homes and in churches, depicting the manger scene. Figures representing Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are placed close to the Three Kings.
Children have come to associate receiving gifts "from the Three Kings" during this twelfth night. Traditionally they fill boxes or shoes with hay (for the camels) and leave them by the doorstep. In the morning the hay is gone and in its place candy, fruit, and toys. On the afternoon of Three Kings Day, many families gather together to eat the "Cake of the Magi". It is shaped in a ring and looks like a king's crown. It is decorated with candied cherries and slivers of pineapple. Small surprises are baked inside the cake. It is traditional for the first adult who finds a gift in his piece of cake to host the Three Kings Day celebration the following year.
Pinatas and Paper Flowers
Chinese New Year
Chinese immigration in relatively large numbers began in the United States in the 1850s. Unemployment drove the Chinese people to Mei Kwok "Beautiful Land" as America was known. In 1852 approximately 19,000 Chinese arrived on the West Coast, gold had recently been discovered in California. This sudden influx of foreigners caused conflict. The immigrants turned to other pursuits in order to earn money to support the families that they had left behind in China. One of their well known accomplishments was the laying of railroad tracks for the Central Pacific. Within the Chinese family unit, ties are extremely strong and customs and habits of the past tend to perpetuate. Second and third generation Chinese Americans have moved away from the ties associated with the homeland of their parents and grandparents. However, many remain proud of their heritage and continue to observe The Chinese New Year as the most important day in the Chinese calendar.
Every Chinese community in the country holds New Year's celebrations. The date is determined by the lunar calendar. The holiday begins with the first new moon after the sun enters the sign of Aquarius. This places the holiday between January 21 and February 19. The years are named for twelve symbolic animals - the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. Festivities last for several days, beginning with family celebrations. Ancestors are remembered at family shrines, and there is visiting among relatives. Many activities are dominated by the symbols of the Yin and Yang, which represent the balanced opposites in the world. Examples would include male and female, positive and negative, and life and death. Noise and light represent the Yang forces which banish evil spirits. Consequently, sounds of gongs, cymbals, and drums fill the air during the public celebrations. Red firecrackers, the traditional color of good omens, are set off at all important events. There are parades with colorful floats and marchers in elaborate costumes. The climax of the holiday period is the Dragon Parade. The Golden Dragon is one of the Divine Creatures to the Chinese. He is a symbol of strength and goodness, who dispels bad spirits and is worshipped as ruler of rivers, lakes, and seas. His structure is made up of the head of a camel, horns of a deer, neck of a snake, claws of a hawk, belly of a frog, and scales of a fish. The dragon's appearance is a way of wishing everyone peace, good fortune, and good luck for the coming year.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year,
St. Patrick's Day
Saint Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. The religion of the Druids, a ritualistic sect based on sun worship, prevailed during the early history of Ireland. Saint Patrick traveled throughout Ireland, during the fourth century, starting churches and schools, and convincing people to become Christians.
The exact date of Saint Patrick's birth is not known. He was born in Scotland between 373 and 395, and given the name Maewyn. His grandfather was a Christian priest, and his father a deacon and an official of the Roman Empire. He was captured by Irish raiders at the age of sixteen and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he spent six years in captivity tending sheep. After escaping his captors, he received his religious training in continental monasteries during the next eighteen years. He entered the priesthood and became bishop. He was named Patrick by Pope Celestine I and sent to Ireland as a missionary.
The legends attributed to Saint Patrick arose during his campaign to convert the Irish from Druidism to Christianity. The shamrock was used to explain the concept of the Trinity. The three leaves joined at the stem symbolized this idea of three Gods in one. Saint Patrick's arrival on his missionary travels was often announced by a drummer. According to legend, it was the drumming and accompanying sermon that drove all the snakes from Ireland, the last of which he hurled into the sea.
It is said that Saint Patrick was a small man in stature, with great energy and activity of mind and body. He wore coarse garments and was said to be humble, cheerful, and a diligent worker. He mixed well with all kinds of people and accommodated himself to all sorts of conditions. It is said that he refused gifts unless they could benefit the poor or be used to build religious houses. He often slept on the bare ground. His strength and dignity inspired many. His memory continues to live on through yearly celebrations.
The first observance of Saint Patrick's death occurred in the United States in 1737 and was sponsored by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston. Saint Patrick's Day was first celebrated in Philadelphia in 1780 by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. These groups were supported by the Irish veterans of the American Revolution.
Today in the United States, Saint Patrick's Day is celebrated by the Swearing of the green" by many people of Irish (and other) descent. The traditional food served at family functions on March 17, is coined beef and cabbage. Often green beer accompanies the meal. Parades are held in cities and towns across the nation. The St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City began in 1762, and is the largest in the United States. Much of the happy celebrating takes place in neighborhood bars.
Sliamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs,
St. Patrick's Day
St. Patrick's Day
Cinco de Mayo
Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican National holiday, but it is in the United States where it is celebrated more widely with parades, music, folklore, and dancing. Mexicans and Americans share in the celebration of this holiday emphasizing the friendship between the two countries. It is especially popular in the southwest in the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In Los Angeles more than 500,000 Chicanos, Hispanics, and their friends celebrate Cinco de Mayo outside City Hall where Mexican orchestras and local bands play Mexican patriotic songs. The streets are colored in red, white, and green - the colors of the Mexican flag. The American flag as well as the Mexican flag decorate the steps of City Hall. Mexican dignitaries are guests of honor. After speeches are heard, the crowds walk through the streets to the old section of the city. Sporting events, dances, and picnics featuring Mexican food, take place in city parks.
The fifth of May, 1862 marks the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla. The Mexicans did not win the war, but the "Batalla de Puebla" became a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism. The Mexican Army demonstrated that Mexicans were willing to defend themselves from foreign intervention. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the defeat of the French by General Ignacio Zaragoza. Cinco de Mayo celebrations of today represent a bold stand against outside forces, oppressions, and interventions.
All About American Holidays