Federal Holidays

A federal holiday is a holiday established and recognized by federal law. Congress creates these holidays according to the United States Code. On these days every year, all non-essential government offices close for business. To explore this concept, consider the following federal holidays definition.

Definition of Federal Holidays


  1. Certain days each year that the United States government has designated as public holidays.



What are Federal Holidays?

In 1870, Congress designated the first four official holidays. This gave workers in the District of Columbia paid time off on New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. In 1880, Congress included George Washington’s Birthday, and in 1885, Congress included all federal employees (not just those in D.C.) in holiday coverage. Between 1880 and 1983, Congress created six additional holidays.

In all federal holiday examples, the government observes these days each year. Nonessential federal offices close, and federal employees receive holiday pay. Individual states and private companies have the option of observing these holidays. While not required, many other institutions and businesses choose to close on those days.

Who Designates Federal Holidays

The United States Congress designates federal holidays under Title V of the United States Code (5 U.S.C. § 6103). This gives Congress the authority to create holidays only for federal institutions and the District of Columbia. The U.S. does not have national holidays, as Congress only has constitutional authority to create holidays on the federal level. It is up to each state to decide their own legal holidays, though most recognize those congress designates as federal holidays.

Holidays by Presidential Proclamation

Federal law also allows for declaration of public holidays by presidential proclamation. Typically, the president announces a reasoning behind the holiday, and calls on the people to observe it. It is not a requirement for government institutions or businesses to close in honor of this type of holiday.

In addition, a day of mourning after a natural disaster, or the death of a noted official, may be set aside by presidential proclamation. Examples of federal holidays by presidential proclamation include the days of the funerals for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Federal government offices closed on those days, and federal employees received pay.

List of Federal Holidays

Congress has created 10 holidays, and many states recognize most or all of them. Some holidays fall on the same calendar date each year, while others fall on a particular day of the week. An example of federal holidays that fall on a specific day include Memorial Day and Easter.

The country always observes Memorial Day on the last Monday in May, and Labor Day the first Monday in September. Though sometimes referred to by different names, the meaning of federal holidays remains the same. The following table is a list of federal holidays.

Holiday Date Details
New Year’s Day January 1 Marks the beginning of Gregorian calendar year
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 3rd Monday in January Honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
President’s Day 3rd Monday in February Honors George Washington – Officially named George Washington’s birthday
Memorial Day Last Monday in May Honors men and women who died while serving in the military
Independence Day July 4 Celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence
Labor Day 1st Monday in September Honors the American workforce
Columbus Day 2nd Monday in October Honors Christopher Columbus
Veteran’s Day November 11 Honors all United States Armed Forces veterans
Thanksgiving 4th Thursday in November A celebration that gives thanks for the Autumn harvest
Christmas Day December 25 A celebration of the birth of Christ

Most people only acknowledge 10 holidays on the federal level. Though not on this list of federal holidays, Inauguration Day is a legal holiday in Washington D.C. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law in 1957. This holiday gives federal employees a day off to observe the historic activities associated with the inauguration.

Pay Structure for Federal Holidays

The pay structure for federal holidays depends on the employer. Federal employees receive 10 paid days off each year. Full-time employees not required to work on the holiday receive their regular pay rate for the relevant number of hours. If the holiday falls on a workday, those on a standard schedule typically receive the day off.

Some private employers follow pay structure for federal holidays. Others only offer time off or holiday pay on some of those holidays. When a holiday falls on a non-workday, full-time employees may receive “in lieu of” holiday. In this situation, the employee’s holiday is the work day immediately preceding or following the non-workday.

Holiday Premium Pay

Holiday premium pay is equal to an employee’s regular rate of pay. When required to work on a holiday, employees receive their regular rate, plus holiday premium pay for each hour worked. If required to work during holiday hours, they should have a minimum of two hours of premium pay.

Working regularly scheduled hours on a holiday entitles employees to holiday premium pay. Those with flexible work schedules receive holiday premium pay if required to work during their regularly scheduled hours on that day.

Overtime on Holidays

Overtime on holidays involves working on a holiday, after working in excess of eight hours in one day or forty hours in one week. When requiring overtime, employers must compensate employees with increased wages for the extra hours worked on the holiday. Generally, the overtime rate is one and half times the employee’s regular rate. However, some employers choose to pay double the regular rate for overtime on holidays.

Night Work on Holidays

Typically, employees working at night receive extra compensation known as “shift differential,” in addition to holiday premium pay. When excused from night work on holidays, federal employees receive their rate of basic pay plus night pay.

State Holidays

Though not required by law, most states generally recognize all federal holidays. In addition, some have passed laws designating their individual state holidays. For instance, Texas does not celebrate Columbus Day, but recognizes the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve as state holidays.

Another federal holiday example not recognized by all states is President’s Day. Officially named George Washington’s birthday, only 38 states observe this holiday. The states use 14 different variations of the name between them.

Private Sector Holidays

Federal law does not set requirements for private sector holidays. Routinely, employees of private companies have few rights when it comes to holiday pay and time off. An employer may provide holidays off with pay, without pay, or with extra compensation.

Some companies do not give holiday time off at all. Most have company policies that outline the procedures for private sector holidays. On average, companies offer paid time off for nine holidays.

Holiday Time Off

In all federal holiday examples, an employee’s status may determine whether they receive holiday time off. For instance, some companies only provide holiday benefits to full-time employees. An employee’s level of seniority may also affect holiday time off and pay. On average, nearly 50 percent of private companies offered at least one floating holiday day each year.

Federal Holiday Example Involving Christmas Day

In 1998, Richard Ganulin, a Jewish lawyer, initiated a lawsuit against the U.S. government. He contended that the law designating Christmas day as a legal holiday violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Ganulin based this claim on the fact that Christmas is a Christian holiday, therefore, it endorses a specific religion. In 1999, a federal district judge in Cincinnati dismissed the case. The court ruled:

“… Courts have repeatedly recognized that the Christmas holiday has become largely secularized,”

and that, “By giving federal employees a paid vacation day on Christmas, the government is doing no more than recognizing the cultural significance of the holiday.”

Ganulin appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court’s decision. He then appealed to the Supreme Court. The court agreed with the Sixth Circuit’s decision affirming the holiday’s constitutionality.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.