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American Holiday Celebrations for February
People of America
American Culture Training in Holiday Customs

Holidays in America

The major federal, religious, traditional, and informal holidays celebrated in the United States.

* These holidays begin at sundown on the evening before the date given.

 
February
Black History Month

Groundhog Day (Feb. 2)

Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday) (Feb. 5)

Ash Wednesday (Feb. 6)

Chinese New Year (Feb. 7)

St. Valentine's Day (Feb. 14)

Presidents' Day (Feb. 18)

Leap Year Day (Feb. 29)

 

Black History Month

 
Americans have recognized black history annually since 1926, first as "Negro History Week" and later as "Black History Month." What you might not know is that black history had barely begun to be studied-or even documented-when the tradition originated. Although blacks have been in America at least as far back as colonial times, it was not until the 20th century that they gained a respectable presence in the history books.

 

We owe the celebration of Black History Month, and more importantly, the study of black history, to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born to parents who were former slaves, he spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines and enrolled in high school at age twenty. He graduated within two years and later went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. The scholar was disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the black American population-and when blacks did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.

 

Woodson decided to take on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation's history. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) in 1915, and a year later founded the widely respected Journal of Negro History. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history.

Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

 

Groundhog Day (Feb. 2, 2008)

 
An informal holiday, February 2 brings the most-watched weather forecast of the year—and the only one led by a rodent. Legend has it that on this morning, if a groundhog can see its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it cannot see its shadow, spring is on the way.

Since a groundhog or woodchuck hibernates for the winter, its coming out of the ground is a natural sign of spring. Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s began keeping an eye on the groundhog. The widespread population of the rodent made it a handy agent for this particular weather superstition. But there's a grain of truth: the winter days when you can see your shadow clearly are often especially cold, because there are no clouds overhead to insulate the earth.

 

Early February is midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Throughout history numerous holidays have marked this seasonal crossroads. Among these is Candlemas Day, February 2, a Christian holiday that celebrates Mary's ritual purification. Early Christians believed that if the sun came out on Candlemas Day, winter would last for six weeks more.

 

Punxsutawney Phil and Friends

In the 1880s some friends in Punxsutawney, Penn., went into the woods on Candlemas Day to look for groundhogs. This outing became a tradition, and a local newspaper editor nicknamed the seekers "the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club." Starting in 1887 the search became an official event centered on a groundhog called Punxsutawney Phil. A ceremony still takes place every year.

 

Today Punxsutawney Phil lives in a climate-controlled habitat adjoining the Punxsutawney Library. A local celebrity, he gained national fame in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. The weather-watching rodent's predictions are recorded in the Congressional Records of our National Archive. So far, Phil has seen his shadow about 85% of the time.

 

Canada's Groundhog Day relies on the predictions of an albino groundhog named Wiarton Willie. Although Punxsutawney Phil gets the most attention, various American cities have their own special groundhogs; New York City's official groundhog is called "Pothole Pete."

 

Mardi Gras (Tues., Feb. 5, 2008)

Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday
 
A religious/traditional holiday but many Americans regardless of their faith enjoy the festivities. Shrove Tuesday falls the day before Ash Wednesday and marks the end of the carnival season, which once began on Epiphany but is now usually celebrated the last three days before Lent. In France, the day is known as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), and celebrations are held in several American cities, particularly New Orleans. The day is sometimes called Pancake Tuesday by the English because fats, which were prohibited during Lent, had to be used up.

 

Traditionally, it is the last day for Catholics to indulge—and often overindulge—before Ash Wednesday starts the sober weeks of fasting that come with Lent., Mardi Gras has long been a time of extravagant fun for European Christians. In fact, some people think Mardi Gras celebrations have their source in the wild springtime orgies of the ancient Romans.

 

In the United States, Mardi Gras draws millions of fun-seekers to New Orleans every year. Mardi Gras has been celebrated in New Orleans on a grand scale, with masked balls and colorful parades, since French settlers arrived in the early 1700s.

 

Masks, Music, and Mayhem

 By dawn on that most famous Tuesday, people have claimed the best spots on the streets to watch fabulous floats, outrageous performers, and visiting celebrities go by. Many travel hundreds of miles to be a part of the excitement.

 

Marching bands, some of them founded more than a century ago, also take to the streets with music and festive dress. They open the day by spreading jazz music through the city before the more than 350 floats and 15,000 costumed paraders take over the scene. Crazy costumes and wild make-up are the order of the day for paraders and parade-watchers alike. The most lavish get-ups can be seen at the cross-dressing beauty pageants in the French Quarter.

 

Krewes: New Orleans Royalty

Mardi Gras has long combined wild street activities open to everyone with events organized by private clubs known as krewes. Today, thousands of people belong to about 60 krewes that plan the parades and balls of New Orleans' Mardi Gras. The oldest krewe, the Krewe of Comus, was founded in 1857 by men who feared the outrageous antics of Mardi Gras would lead to the holiday being outlawed.

 

In 1872 the Russian grand duke Alexis Romanoff visited New Orleans at Mardi Gras. A group of businessmen organized the Krewe of Rex to host a parade for the occasion, and appointed a "king for the day" so that the grand duke could have a royal reception. Naming kings and queens at Mardi Gras balls has been a tradition of the krewes ever since. Another tradition began with that royal visit: the Romanoff house colors—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power—became the official colors of Mardi Gras.

 

The millions of colorful beaded necklaces thrown from floats are the most visible symbols and souvenirs of Mardi Gras. In addition, millions of cups and toy coins known as "doubloons" are decorated with krewe logos and thrown to parade-watchers. Some "throws" are especially prized: only the luckiest folks manage to take home the hand-decorated coconuts from the Krewe of Zulu.

 

Ash Wednesday (Feb. 6, 2008)

 
This religious holiday begins the seventh Wednesday before Easter and is the first day of Lent, which lasts 40 days. It is a day of public penance and is marked by the burning of the palms blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday. With the ashes from the palms the priest then marks a cross with his thumb upon the forehead of each worshipper to remind them of death, of the sorrow they should feel for their sins, and of the necessity of changing their lives. It is observed by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians, and many Lutherans; it was also adopted by some Methodists and Presbyterians in the 1990s but generally without the use of ashes.

 

Chinese New Year (Feb. 7, 2008)

Between January 21 and February 19

 
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar. The Chinese New Year is celebrated at the second new moon after the winter solstice and falls between January 21 and February 19 on the Gregorian calendar.

 

Chinese months are reckoned by the lunar calendar, with each month beginning on the darkest day. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is brightest.

 

The Year

Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality.

 

Fireworks and Family Feasts

At Chinese New Year celebrations people wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children "lucky money" in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom. Long ago, people in China lit bamboo stalks, believing that the crackling flames would frighten evil spirits.

 

The Lantern Festival

In China, the New Year is a time of family reunion. In the United States, however, many early Chinese immigrants arrived without their families, and found a sense of community through neighborhood associations instead. Today, many Chinese-American neighborhood associations host banquets and other New Year events.

 

Chinese New Year ends with the lantern festival on the fifteenth day of the month. Some of the lanterns may be works of art, painted with birds, animals, flowers, zodiac signs, and scenes from legend and history. People hang glowing lanterns in temples, and carry lanterns to an evening parade under the light of the full moon.

 

In many areas the highlight of the lantern festival is the dragon dance. The dragon—which might stretch a hundred feet long—is typically made of silk, paper, and bamboo. Traditionally the dragon is held aloft by young men who dance as they guide the colorful beast through the streets. In the United States, where the New Year is celebrated with a shortened schedule, the dragon dance always takes place on a weekend. In addition, many Chinese-American communities have added American parade elements such as marching bands and floats.

 

St. Valentine's Day (Feb. 14)

 
A traditional holiday now but the holiday's roots are in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility celebration commemorated annually on February 15. Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day circa 496, declaring February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day. Which St. Valentine this early pope intended to honor remains a mystery; there were at least three early Christian saints by that name.

 

It was not until the 14th century that this Christian feast day became definitively associated with love. It was Chaucer who first linked St. Valentine's Day with romance. In 1381, Chaucer composed a poem in honor of the engagement between England's Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. As was the poetic tradition, Chaucer associated the occasion with a feast day. In "The Parliament of Fowls," the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine's Day are linked.

 

Over the centuries, the holiday evolved, and by the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging hand-made cards on Valentine's Day had become common in England. Hand-made valentine cards made of lace, ribbons, and featuring cupids and hearts eventually spread to the American colonies. The tradition of Valentine's cards did not become widespread in the United States, however, until the 1850s, when Esther A. Howland, a Mount Holyoke graduate and native of Worcester, Mass., began mass-producing them. Today, of course, the holiday has become a booming commercial success.

 

Presidents' Day (Third Monday of February, Feb. 18, 2008)

Lincoln's Birthday (Feb. 12)

Washington's Birthday (Feb. 22)

 
Only Washington is commemorated by the federal holiday.

Lincoln’s Birthday, was first formally observed in Washington, DC, in 1866, when both houses of Congress gathered for a memorial address in tribute to the assassinated president. In 13 states, it is combined with Washington's Birthday and celebrated as President's Day. Well, according to the federal government, the holiday observed on the third Monday in February is officially Washington's Birthday. But many Americans believe that this holiday is now called "Presidents' Day," in honor of both Presidents Washington and Lincoln. It turns out that whether you honor one or the other or both of these presidents may depend on where you live.

 

Leap Year (Feb. 29, 2008)

 
Why do we need leap year?

The Gregorian calendar, which now serves as the standard calendar for civil use throughout the world, has both common years and leap years. A common year has 365 days and a leap year 366 days, with the extra, or intercalary, day designated as February 29. A leap year occurs every four years to help synchronize the calendar year with the solar year, or the length of time it takes the earth to complete its orbit about the sun, which is about 365¼ days. The length of the solar year, however, is slightly less than 365¼ days—by about 11 minutes. To compensate for this discrepancy, the leap year is omitted three times every four hundred years. In other words, a century year cannot be a leap year unless it is divisible by 400. Thus 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 1600, 2000, and 2400 are leap years. Most years that can be divided evenly by 4 are leap years.

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