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Largest Old Glory placed on U.S. Capitol for flag exercises. An unusual view of the largest American flag in the world as it was displayed across the front of the United States Capitol where flag exercises were conducted by the United States Flag Association. The flag is 160 feet in length and 90 feet wide. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. (Created in 1929). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Largest Old Glory placed on U.S. Capitol for flag exercises. An unusual view of the largest American flag in the world as it was displayed across the front of the United States Capitol where flag exercises were conducted by the United States Flag Association. The flag is 160 feet in length and 90 feet wide. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. 1929. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

A Cause for Celebration: Federal Holidays and Observances Part 1

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The following is a guest post by Lashandra Dover-Harris, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

The first public holidays were established by Congress in 1870 when New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving were declared holidays in the District of Columbia. Since then, George Washington’s Birthday (also known as Presidents Day), Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr, and, most recently, Juneteenth have been added to the list of 11 legal public holidays that are documented in Title 5 of the U.S. Code. These are the days when the federal government and sometimes state governments, schools, banks, and private companies close. However, many more observances have been established by Congress and the President that are worth celebrating.

Title 36 of the U.S. Code was established in 1998 and details the permanent patriotic and national observances created by Congress, which the President then declares through a proclamation. These observances are authorized for the President to announce annually, and some have become as well-known as the legal public holidays.

Family and Pets

Some observances honor the family as the bedrock of the nation. Mother’s Day was first established on May 8, 1914, in honor of the American mother as “the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.” Fifty-eight years later, Father’s Day was created for “the abiding love and gratitude” for our fathers. A short six years after that, National Grandparents Day was started in honor of those who had passed the parenthood torch on to the next generation. Most recently, Parents Day was established in 1994 “in furtherance of recognizing, uplifting, and supporting the role of parents in the rearing of their children.”

Title 36 includes permanent laws for national and patriotic observances that occur every year, however, there are other observances passed by Congress that are only in effect for that year. These observances become statutes and are recorded in the Statutes at Large. However, since they are not permanent laws, they do not become part of the U.S. Code. Here too, Congress emphasizes the importance of family. Salem City Schools in Salem, Ohio, first declared January 16, 1992, Good Teen Day, and on October 24, Congress issued a joint resolution authorizing the president to proclaim January 19, 1993, as National Good Teen Day. In 1994, Congress issued a joint resolution declaring 1995 the Year of the Grandparent, recognizing “the tremendous amount of love and power for good” they provide to grandchildren.

Congress did not forget non-human family members. In 1990 and again in 1992, Congress named the first full week in May Be Kind to Animals and National Pet Week in honor of the tenth anniversary of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s National Pet Week.

Photograph of former First Lady Grace Coolidge standing outside holding her pet raccoon with children behind her.
Mrs. Coolidge exhibits her pet raccoon [Rebecca] to crowds of children gathered for Easter egg rolling. April 18, 1927. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Presidents do not have to wait for Congress to create an observance and sometimes will pick up where Congress left off. In 1988, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring May National Foster Care Month, which President Reagan proclaimed on May 10, 1988. Two additional resolutions continuing the holiday were passed in 1991 and 1992 under President George H.W. Bush. Although President Bill Clinton proclaimed November National Adoption Month in 1999 and 2000, National Foster Care Month was not officially recognized again until President Barack Obama restarted the May observance in 2010 without Congress passing a law. Since then, it has been celebrated yearly by presidential proclamation.


Congress has created several observances to honor the country and foster patriotism and civic pride. September 17 is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, created in 1952 to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and to recognize all citizens. Four years later, the celebration was extended to Constitution Week which runs September 17 through 23. National Freedom Day is February 1, the day in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the joint resolution of the House and Senate that proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery in the United States and its territories.

May is a particularly patriotic month. In addition to Memorial Day, both Law Day, celebrating our liberty, equality, justice, and respect for the law, and Loyalty Day, reaffirming loyalty to the country and its heritage of freedom are observed on May 1.

Not to be outdone, June has even more celebrations. Flag Day on June 14, honors the adoption of the official flag of the United States by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. It also kicks off National Flag Week, which starts on June 14, and urges citizens to display the flag, and Honor America Days, the period from Flag Day through Independence Day, as a time to honor America by “public gatherings and activities at which the people of the United States can celebrate and honor their country.”

Handwritten joint resolution submitting 13th Amendment to the States with signatures of Abraham Lincoln and Congress.
Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 3. General Correspondence. 1837-1897: Congress, Wednesday, February 01, 1865 (Joint Resolution Submitting 13th Amendment to the States; signed by Abraham Lincoln and Congress). Lincoln, Abraham. February 1, 1865. Manuscripts Division.

Historical Figures

Congress also enacts observances to honor notable people in the nation’s history. Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday, April 13, was established in 1937 to celebrate the founding father and third U.S. President, and October 9 was designated Leif Erikson Day in 1964 to honor the Icelandic explorer believed to be the first European to visit North America, almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. January 13 has been Stephen Foster Memorial Day since 1951. Foster, known as “the father of American Music,” was an American composer whose works include “Oh! Susanna,” “Swanee River,” and Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” We also celebrate Wright Brothers Day on December 17, the day of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first successful flight of a mechanically propelled airplane in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Image of mechanically propelled plane flying a few feet off the ground on a sandy beach with Orville Wright lying on the wing controlling the plane and Wilbur Wright running next to the plane.
[First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m.; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina] Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, & John T Daniels, photographers. December 17, 1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Part Two, which discusses cultural categories of food, music, education, and diversity, will be published tomorrow.

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  1. Congratulations on your publication Lashandra!

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