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Pod corner: 'Civics 101'


The podcast Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio explains the basics of how our democracy works. Each week, hosts Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice explore one topic, from the branches of government to a history of landmark Supreme Court cases. And today they're talking about federal holidays, why we got them and how they get made in the first place. Here's Hannah.

HANNAH MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Nick, you know how when you're a journalist, that tends to mean spending every morning clicking through about a dozen or so press releases just to clean out your inbox?

NICK CAPODICE, BYLINE: Yeah. There's a guy who was an extra in "Pirates Of The Caribbean" who I get an email about like once a month who's got his - got an opinion to share about something.

MCCARTHY: I feel like you should interview him.

CAPODICE: I should.

MCCARTHY: At least consider it. And at least a few times a month, it's something like, we hope you're planning to cover a National Diatomaceous Earth Day or National Clean Out Your Virtual Desktop Day.

CAPODICE: Last week, I got one that was like, hey, we know you know it's National Peppermint Bark Day.

MCCARTHY: Everybody knows.

CAPODICE: Here's what you should be doing to cover it. And we have these experts to talk about it, if you're interested.

MCCARTHY: And I'm always like, who came down from on high and decided that it was National Bubblewrap Appreciation Day?

CAPODICE: I'm going to blame big bubble wrap for that one - bunch of bubble wrap moguls sitting on their bubble wrap thrones, popping their product.

MCCARTHY: I have looked into it. Some of these micro-holidays, a term that I stole from Atlantic writer Megan Garber, are manufactured by industries to sell things. You're right. Now, some are, to my mind, legitimate reminders that draw awareness to illness or social problems or important events. I'm cool with that. And some are just nonsense that has made its way onto the internet like National Walk Around Things Day.

CAPODICE: Is that real?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. Well, I mean, what do you mean, is it real? None of this is real. And I can only assume the point of National Walk Around Things Day is to celebrate the act of walking around things.

CAPODICE: I had no idea you were so passionate about this.

MCCARTHY: I think it's the arbitrariness. It's not grounded in anything. Or maybe the excuse for selling stuff also really bothers me. Or maybe, Nick, maybe five years of National French Dip Day press releases finally broke me.

CAPODICE: If you're going to forgive me, Hannah, but aren't all holidays made up? I mean, somebody at some point says, this is the special day, everybody. Take your kid to the doctor in a red wheelbarrow and eat some plums because it's William Carlos Williams Day.

MCCARTHY: You wait. You'll get a press release for that tomorrow. But I take your point. Yes, all holidays have to start somewhere, but some holidays really go somewhere. There are holidays that are far more significant, far more real, if you will. So today, to cleanse the palate, Nick, we are going to talk about the holidays that rise all the way up to the powers that be, who proclaim them to be real, who make them official. This is Civics 101. I'm Hannah McCarthy.

CAPODICE: I'm Nick Capodice.

MCCARTHY: And today we are covering the 12 - count em, only 12 - federal holidays on the United States calendar.

CAPODICE: There's only 12?

MCCARTHY: Only 12. And this is the how and the why of becoming official.


CAPODICE: All right. And just to start, I want to clarify. Calling something a national holiday does not make it a federal holiday.

MCCARTHY: Correct.


MCCARTHY: In actual fact, the United States does not have national holidays the way that some other countries do.

CAPODICE: Well, what do you mean?

MCCARTHY: Well, you can't have a national holiday in the United States because Congress does not have the constitutional authority to force the 50 states to observe a holiday.

JEFF BENSCH: It only applies to federal employees.

MCCARTHY: This is Jeff Bensch, the author of "History Of American Holidays."

BENSCH: And in the early days, it only applied to federal employees in Washington, D.C. It shortly thereafter applied to all federal employees. And then the banks usually take the day off.

CAPODICE: This is something I've always wondered. Is a bank holiday the same thing as a federal holiday? Like, do banks somehow fall within the federal employee world because they're regulated by the Federal Reserve?

MCCARTHY: That is a great question. No, banks do not have to close on a federal holiday, but they usually do because they tend to follow the U.S. Federal Reserve calendar. Basically, it's hard to do business when the thing that regulates you takes the day off.

CAPODICE: It seems like we all tend to follow that calendar, though. Like, every year, we get a list of paid holidays from New Hampshire Public Radio, and I'm pretty sure it adds up to about 12.

BENSCH: Generally, once the federal government declares a holiday, then the states will tend to ratify it afterwards.

MCCARTHY: A state holiday is a day made official by state legislatures. And even on these days, with some exceptions for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, private employers are not required to give a paid day off. Sometimes even a state employer doesn't have to pay a state employee during that day off.

CAPODICE: I feel like this is another tried and true example of, how does this civics 101 topic work? And the answer is federalism.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. Per usual, every state can do it differently.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: It's a state holiday today, meaning most government offices will be closed. It's all in remembrance of the Bennington battle...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: The state offices in both Alabama and Mississippi are closed today for Confederate Memorial Day. And for our state, it is one of three Confederate...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: That day is the best because everybody comes together. Everybody enjoys themselves. We all...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Today's a holiday in Rhode Island and only in Rhode Island.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: It's Victory Day, a state holiday that marks the end of...


BENSCH: A couple of holidays, you know, the states would resist it after the federal throughout history, you know, like Memorial Day, for one, because it started after the Civil War, and the Southern states were not into it. It took them awhile.

CAPODICE: Actually, this makes me think of New Hampshire in particular. I grew up when this argument was happening. Weren't we the last state in the union to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday?

MCCARTHY: New Hampshire is kind of tied with South Carolina. They made it a holiday in 1999 and under a good deal of protest in the legislature, I should add. South Carolina state law gave public employers the option of observing either MLK Day or one of three Confederate holidays. Now, that ended in the year 2000, when MLK Day became a compulsory holiday. But just for the record, Confederate holidays are still, albeit quite controversially, celebrated in several states in the U.S., including South Carolina.

CAPODICE: Well, that's another prime example of federalism at work, I suppose. State legislatures can enshrine whatever date they want. I'm thinking, for example, those states that opt not to celebrate Columbus Day and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead, right?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. And that's something that the federal government has also considered doing, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, which gets to this practice that Jeff mentioned earlier - right? - of the federal government copying what a state does. So Labor Day is actually a great example of this.

BENSCH: Different labor unions wanted a holiday to celebrate labor and the eight-hour workday and then the 40-hour work week. And after various, strikes and riots before then, different groups had created their own Labor Day.

MCCARTHY: Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a legal holiday, and that was in 1887. There were 28 states celebrating Labor Day as a state holiday before Congress finally made it a federal holiday in 1894. And in a case like this, it is not like the federal government was a champion of laborers or unions.

BENSCH: It was the Pullman Strike of 1894 that instigated Labor Day. And there, the federal troops came in. And that railroad strike was big. And it spanned many other labor unions. But the federal troops came in and forced the workers back to work and arrested a bunch and all that kind of stuff. But then later on that year, the - President Cleveland agreed to make it a federal holiday, hoping to win back some of the votes he lost (laughter) by sending in the federal troops.

CAPODICE: So how does a federal holiday end up being signed by a president? I mean, if it carries the force of law, does it work like a bill? Does it go through the legislative process and get signed by the president at the end?

MCCARTHY: Well, for one thing, presidents sign observations of holidays all the time, but that doesn't make a federal holiday.

BENSCH: You might get a presidential proclamation or executive order that designates it as a holiday. And usually, that might only be for one time or for a short period. It's really not an official holiday until it goes through Congress. It's just like any other law.


MCCARTHY: The most common argument against a federal holiday at the legislative level, by the way, is money. It costs millions of federal dollars to shut down offices but still pay employees for the day.

CAPODICE: And this is another thing where it's like any other bill. It's an issue of funding.


CAPODICE: So if all these holidays had to be established by law, that means that when the United States was established as a country, Thanksgiving, for example, was not a federal holiday.

BENSCH: There's the act of 1870. There was four holidays - New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

CAPODICE: Hold on - 1870? So it was basically 100 years before we had any federal holidays at all?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. The 1870 act was passed, quote, "to correspond with similar laws of states around the district and in every state of the Union."

MA: Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice are the hosts of Civics 101. You can hear more about the creation of federal holidays and check out more of their episodes by looking them up in your podcast app or at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.