Generally speaking, holidays have one of two main origins. Religious holidays trace their roots back to feast days and holy days within their respective calendars, while secular holidays either commemorate important people or historical events, or were implemented to raise awareness of a particular cause or topic. Some are regional, while others are widely celebrated. Still others may have lost something of their original meaning over the years.
In the United States, we celebrate numerous holidays throughout the year, but there are only 10 so-called “federal holidays”—the days that federal government employees get off with pay. Many employers throughout the country use this as a guide for which days they give their employees off, while others are open 365 days a year. Whether we celebrate them with family and friends or simply mark them on our calendars, holidays mean something to almost all of us.
Here are a few holidays that you may not have heard of—and some you may know well—celebrating, commemorating, or simply remembering important events from the past. From the vital to the frivolous, these holidays all have their roots in specific historic moments in the United States. Some are holidays celebrated across the country, while others are situated in only one part of a single state.
Juneteenth – June 19th
Known by a variety of other names, including Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and others, Juneteenth is now recognized in one form or another in most U.S. states, though its widespread recognition has come only in the 21st century. Its changing status from mostly unknown to relatively mainstream exemplifies how the significance of holidays can change over time as cultural values shift.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S., specifically Union general Gordon Granger’s announcement on June 19th, 1865 that proclaimed all slaves in the state of Texas were free. While the Emancipation Proclamation had already outlawed slavery more than two years before, enforcement came slowly to distant states like Texas. The earliest Juneteenth celebrations were frequently organized by church groups or the Freedmen’s Bureau, and often doubled as a way to help freed slaves exercise their new rights, including instructions on how to register to vote.
Casimir Pulaski Day – First Monday in March
Casimir Pulaski, a Polish noble driven into exile, immigrated to the fledgling United States in 1777. He became a general in the Continental Army and, along with Michael Kovats de Fabriczy, helped to drastically reform the American cavalry forces that fought in the Revolutionary War. He came to be called “the father of the American cavalry.”
In 1986, mayor Harold Washington of Chicago introduced a resolution designating the first Monday in March as Casimir Pulaski Day. The holiday is celebrated throughout Illinois, primarily in towns and cities with large Polish populations. Several Chicago-area musicians have immortalized the day in song, including Sufjan Stevens, whose song “Casimir Pulaski Day” on his album Illinois combines an account of his friend’s battle with bone cancer with his memories of the holiday.
Loving Day – June 12th
Difficult as it is to believe now, interracial marriage was illegal in much of the United States until 1967, when a landmark Supreme Court case declared that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.” That case was Loving v. Virginia, brought by Richard and Mildred Loving. The couple had been married in Washington, D.C., where such marriages were legal, only to find themselves behind bars in their home state of Virginia.
In 2010, Time magazine called Loving Day—which commemorates the anniversary of that historic ruling—“the biggest multiracial celebration in the U.S.” However, Loving Day wasn’t introduced as a holiday until 2004, and still hasn’t been officially recognized by the U.S. government.
World UFO Day – June 24th or July 2nd
Sure, a lot of our national and international observances—both official and otherwise—have historical precedents, but not World UFO Day, right? Wrong! It actually has two! Depending on who you ask, World UFO Day is celebrated on either June 24th or July 2nd of each year. The former date commemorates what is widely believed to have been the first widely reported sighting of an unidentified flying object, dating back to 1947.
The second date? Well, you might be unsurprised to learn that it’s a reference to the infamous “flying saucer” crash that supposedly happened near Roswell, New Mexico, just a week after those June sightings…coincidence? Whether you believe, or just “want to believe,” as the saying goes, World UFO Day is the perfect day to raise awareness of unidentified flying objects, or just keep watching the skies. The holiday also strives to encourage national governments to declassify their records of UFOs.
National Dogs in Politics Day – September 23rd
On September 23rd, 1952, then-Senator Richard Nixon appeared on television and addressed more than 60 million Americans. At the time, he was the nominee for Vice President on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ticket, and he was facing allegations that he had abused campaign contributions. Nixon wanted voters to see his humanity, and one way he did so was by referencing his family’s black-and-white cocker spaniel, Checkers. This later became the date for National Dogs in Politics Day—sometimes called Checkers Day— which celebrates all the various “First Dogs” of the United States that have called the White House home throughout the years.