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Origin stories behind 30 holidays
More than just a day to rest or have fun, holidays often call on people to celebrate, reflect, or engage with their families and communities. Some holidays are geared toward commemorating special events and people, while others are born from religions. Various other holidays were created to encourage awareness and to help fix some of society’s biggest problems. Many of the most important and catalytic moments of history or people are marked as holidays, including Juneteenth, Canada Day, and the observance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
Holidays also are integral aspects of many of the world’s religions. These days of observance welcome participants to reflect on their relationships with their belief systems or celebrate with family and friends. Sometimes such holidays are used to consider the sacrifices people have made for their religions. Below, Stacker looks at the origins of holidays such as Holi, Purim, and Christmas from the Hindu, Jewish, Christian faiths.
Many of the more recent holidays center around raising awareness about issues and events around the world, such as Earth Day and Employee Appreciation Day.
Stacker examined the origin stories behind 30 holidays across the globe. Read on to learn more about how some of your favorite holidays—some of which you may never have heard of—came to be.
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National Ice Cream Day
Celebrated on the third Sunday in July, National Ice Cream Day originated in 1984 as Ice Cream Month. The 31-day nod to the popular treat came by way of a joint resolution in Congress. Former President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law by proclamation.
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Named “Fête nationale” by the French and referred to as Bastille Day by English speakers, July 14 commemorates the day in 1789 when the Bastille Saint-Antoine (a fortress) was stormed, which spurred the French Revolution. Today, the French celebrate the national holiday with public events like dances, parades, concerts, and fireworks from the Eiffel Tower.
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International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 in various countries and in many different ways around the world. In Germany, for instance, it is a public holiday, while in Romania it is an unofficial celebration to honor women. The idea for the day originated with Clara Zetkin in 1910 to commemorate working women who had marched on the same date in 1908, demanding economic and social justice.
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Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim religious holiday celebrated globally as the last day of Ramadan. Its date depends on the Islam lunar calendar, so it changes each year. Eid al-Fitr is often called the “Festival of Breaking the Fast.” The holiday originated with the Islamic prophet Muhammad, who had the Koran revealed to him during Ramadan.
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Passover is a Jewish religious holiday that occurs on the 15th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It ranges from a seven-day celebration for the Reform Jewish denomination and eight days for the Hasidic and Conservative Jewish denominations. The holiday originated from the Torah when ancient Israelites marked their doors with the sacrifice of a lamb for God to pass over their homes while slaying the first-born children of Egyptians.
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Purim is a Jewish religious holiday celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. It usually occurs in late winter or early spring. The origin of Purim stretches back to 400 B.C., when Jews in the Persian empire defeated their anti-Semitic enemies. Purim marks the day of relaxation after the battle.
Imbolc is a Celtic pagan religious holiday celebrated from February 1–2 each year. Imbolc originated as a festival in honor of the pagan goddess Brigid, which marked the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.
Holi is an Indian festival of colors holiday that lasts five days; it is celebrated during the full moon day in Phalguna on the Hindu calendar. The celebration derives from an Indian legend in which a woman named Holika lost her life because of a sinister plot. The holiday, named after Holika, is a celebration of the victory of good versus evil.
Canada Day originated as Dominion Day, which marked the July 1, 1867, anniversary of when the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick merged into the Dominion of Canada, known today as Canada. Canada Day became the official title of the national holiday in 1982.
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Kwanzaa lasts from December 26 to January 1. The African American cultural holiday was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a way to find a festivity to help unite the African American community, particularly after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. The name is Swahili for “first fruits of the harvest,” and is based on Nguzo Sabu, seven principles to build and reinforce community in the African diaspora.
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Mardi Gras is a Christian religious holiday that occurs the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Its roots are in pagan Roman holidays and festivals. Mardi Gras originated as a Christian version of excessive Roman festivities, such as Saturnalia, to incorporate the Christian faith into local traditions. It also offered a precursor to Lent, the Christian season of sacrifice and penance.
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Veterans Day commemorates all U.S. veterans, living and dead, on November 11. The special day began as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919, by President Woodrow Wilson to commemorate the ending of World War I the previous year. The name was changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 by President Dwight Eisenhower.
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Labor Day is celebrated in the United States on the first Monday of each September as a tribute to American workers. Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire were prominent labor activists, both of whom have been credited as the founders of Labor Day, which became an official federal American holiday in 1894.
Memorial Day is a tribute to U.S. veterans who died during service and is celebrated on the last Monday in May. Memorial Day originated during Reconstruction when Americans held tributes to the dead Union and Confederate soldiers. The first national Memorial Day commemoration was on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery.
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Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar and ends on the 15th of the first lunar month. Legend has it that this holiday originated from a time when ancient Chinese villagers defeated a lion named Nian. Chinese New Year emerged as the yearly celebration of the victory, with records showing celebrations as far back as the 14th-century Shang Dynasty.
Earth Day is a global holiday celebrated each year on April 22. The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, when over 20 million Americans across the country demonstrated through marches and teach-ins to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues. At the U.N. on Earth Day 2016, over 170 countries signed the landmark Paris Agreement to fight climate change and harmful environmental practices across the globe.
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Juneteenth is the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, which marked the emancipation of more than 250,000 enslaved Black people who had not yet learned that President Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery 30 months earlier. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, but it wasn’t until Juneteenth that Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to spread the word. Though, even then, newly freed slaves were encouraged to stay put: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere,” Granger said.
In 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an American holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October. It originated in 1989 by South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson as Native American Day, which was an alternative holiday to Columbus Day to celebrate the Native American and Indigenous population. The idea was to reconcile relations between the white and native populations in that state. In 1992, Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
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Nelson Mandela Day
Nelson Mandela Day is celebrated on July 18 every year in honor of the South African anti-apartheid activist. Nelson Mandela Day was originated by the United Nations in 2009. Nelson Mandela Day is a worldwide day to remember Mandela’s efforts and to promote awareness and activism against disempowered populations across the world.
Christmas is a worldwide holiday celebrated on December 25. The celebration originated as the Feast of the Nativity in the fourth century by Pope Julius I to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ—the savior in the Christian religion. The date was chosen to coincide with the Roman pagan festival Saturnalia and the winter solstice to help mesh with traditions in the areas where the church wanted to convert people.
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Martin Luther King Jr. Day
MLK Day is an American federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of each January. It commemorates the birthday (January 15) and life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most pre-eminent Black civil rights leaders in U.S. history. The campaign for the creation of a day to honor King began after his assassination in 1968; however, a bill officially marking King’s birthday was not signed until 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. The first observed MLK Day was on January 20, 1986.
Halloween is a global holiday celebrated annually on October 31. It originated with the Celtic pagan religious holiday Samhain, which was a day to make sacrifices for the ghosts of the dead believed to have returned to Earth that day. Halloween got its name when, around 1000 A.D., the Christian church made November 1 All Hallows’ Day, and October 31 became All Hallows’ Eve, which was then shortened to Halloween.
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Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated from November 1–2. Mexicans remember and give offerings to honor the lives of deceased relatives. This holiday originated over 3,000 years ago with indigenous Mexican tribes who believed that deceased ancestors temporarily came back to Earth for this brief time.
Valentine’s Day is celebrated around the world on February 14. It is named in honor of St. Valentine, who was murdered on February 14, 270 A.D., for defying Roman officials and helping his fellow Christians. Valentine’s Day became associated with romance because the Christian church wanted a Christian holiday to compete with the Roman holiday, Lupercalia (February 15), which was also associated with love and fertility.
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Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day
Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, also known as Take Your Kids to Work Day, is an American holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in April. The holiday originated as Take Your Daughter to Work Day by feminist Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women as a way to expose young girls to career opportunities. The holiday was officially expanded to include boys in 2003, although they had been unofficially included much earlier.
Eid al-Adha is an Islamic religious holiday on the 12th of Dhu al-Hijjah, the final month in the lunar calendar. The holiday began as a way to celebrate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to show obedience to God’s command. Eid al-Adha is celebrated worldwide as a time for Muslims to sacrifice for Allah and share with their family and neighbors.
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Mother’s Day in America is celebrated on the second Sunday in May and was started by Anna Jarvis in 1908 in memory of her deceased mother. Jarvis began campaigning for the holiday and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law making Mother’s Day a national holiday.
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Father’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June in the U.S. and originated as a memorial service in 1908 in honor of a group of men who died in a mining accident in West Virginia. Sonora Smart Dodd established the holiday in 1910 in honor of her father, who raised six kids as a single dad. The first official nationwide Father’s Day was observed as a holiday by President Richard Nixon in 1972.
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Employee Appreciation Day
Employee Appreciation Day is celebrated on the first Friday in March. It was created in 1995 by Dr. Bob Nelson, a founding member of Recognition Professionals International. Employee Appreciation Day is a day when employers are called to do something extra for their employees to show appreciation for the work they do.
Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26 in the U.K. and British Commonwealth countries, such as Canada and Australia. The holiday originated because, in past centuries, servants were required to tend to their masters’ families on Christmas. On Boxing Day, they were given Christmas gift boxes by their masters and did not have to work, allowing them to share the holiday with their own families.