Three Days Off

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graphic saying 'Holidays on the Trail'

Few holidays broke the daily or seasonal rhythms of life in the young United States, and there was a notable lack of consistency even among the few that were observed.1 Thanksgiving was considered a New England feast-day; elsewhere it was ignored. Independence Day, first observed in Massachusetts in 1781, remained primarily a Northern holiday for many years.

New Year's was a social festival, with exchanges of friendly visits; the stroke of midnight was allowed to pass without notice. "Auld Lang Syne" was just a sentimental buddy song that could suitably follow any toast on any occasion, and besides, it probably was sung to a different tune than we use today. Visiting among neighbors, sometimes quite distant, was a cherished tradition throughout the holiday period. It was known, in the "call-verse" to a popular frontier fiddle tune, as "Breakin' Up Christmas", which meant spending not a few hours but a few days with any number of distant family and friends.

In the first few decades of the 1800s, throughout the North, Christmas was just another ordinary day; it didn't become an official holiday in the US until 1870. Meanwhile, most southerners observed it with fireworks, hunting, dancing, food, and drink. However, on the western frontier—in Kentucky, for instance—Christmas was an occasion to indulge in a few extra rations and to recall the pleasures of lives and times left behind, beyond the Appalachians. Easter was even less significant in the puritanical early American church. Not until after the Civil War, during which violent death had touched nearly every family, did Easter become as significant as Christmas.

Everywhere, birthdays generally passed without notice, except in gentlemen's homes. The two captains observed theirs, but there's no hint in the journals that anyone else's were counted.

In a compromise with its multicultural makeup, the Corps of Discovery celebrated just three special days—Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Independence Day—and each must have been observed with a jovial mixture of traditions.

1. At least one thing in the United States remains unchanged after more than 200 years: We still have no national holidays, and neither Congress nor the president is empowered to declare any. They may designate so-called "legal" holidays—when public institutions, banks, and most businesses are closed—for the District of Columbia only, and each of the fifty states may follow suit if its legislature chooses to.

Currently, there are thirteen legal holidays on our annual national calendar, of which only six are observed in all states: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas. Six more are observed in some states, but not in all: Presidents Day, Good Friday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Election Day, and Veterans' Day. In addition, there are such non-legal holidays as American Indian Day, Father's and Mother's days, Halloween, and St. Valentine's Day. Finally, a number of states have their own special days, such as Patriots Day in Massachusetts and Maine, and Confederate Memorial Day in several southern states.