The Law of Thanksgiving

Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God . . .’ Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States . . . .” –George Washington[1]


It is Thanksgiving Break and the editors of the Michigan State International Law Review are hard at work preparing the first issue of the 2015-16 volume. This week the legal forum will take a brief look into the law of public holidays and will continue with its in-depth articles next week.


Public Holidays

The idea for this post came from a news article by Vox that outlined five countries besides America where people celebrate Thanksgiving.[2] While reading about how other countries celebrate, I began to wonder how official holidays are declared and what they actually mean, legally.  

United States

Most major public holidays in the United States are called federal holidays and are recognized by statute.[3] In addition to Congressional enactment, other public holidays (which may or may not be recognized as federal holidays) may also be established by presidential proclamation.[4] The only legal significance of this designation (on the federal level) is the closing of certain parts of the government; banks, retailers, and other businesses are allowed to be open on public holidays, but most choose not to.[5] Federal law does not require an employer to give federal holidays off nor does it require employers to pay extra for working on a holiday.[6] Likewise, if a day off is given, the employer is not required to pay for unworked hours.[6] Most businesses do have some sort of plan where employees can take time off for major holidays or make a bit extra by working, but this is all discretionary. Federal law does, however, require reasonable accommodation for religious practice, which may require giving unpaid leave.[7] States, however, may enact “Blue Laws” that restrict work on federal holidays that are listed under state statute.[8]


The Canadian Labour Code lists a set of paid holidays (called statutory holidays) much like the federal holidays in the United States.[9] Unlike federal holidays, though, employees in Canada that are subject to federal regulation are entitled to a day off with pay for each of the statutory holidays.[9] While the Code does not require an employer to give the actual day of the holiday off, employees that must work on a statutory holiday are entitled to the holiday pay (which will either be a substitute paid day off or the equivalent of a bonus) plus 1.5 times the normal pay rate while working.[9]  

United Kingdom

Public holidays in the United Kingdom are referred to as bank holidays.[10] Bank holidays are established by each nation within the United Kingdom such that England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland do not all have the same bank holidays.[10] Like the United States, employers in the United Kingdom are not required to provide paid leave on bank holidays nor must they pay extra to employees working on a bank holiday.[11] Unlike the United States, though, employees in the United Kingdom are entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday leave each year, which may be used during bank holidays.[11]  


[1] Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, Oct. 3, 1789, available at
[2] Zack Beauchamp, 5 Countries Besides America Where People Celebrate Thanksgiving, Vox (Nov. 25, 2015),
[3] 5 USC § 6103.
[4] Learn About Life in the United States,, (last visited Nov. 23, 2015).
[5]Elie Mystal, How Liberals and Christians Can Stop Stores on Thanksgiving, Above the Law (Dec. 1, 2014),  
[6] Holidays, Department of Labor, (last visited Nov. 23, 2015).
[7] 42 USC § 2000.
[8] See, e.g., Sunday and Holiday Openings,, (last visited Nov. 23, 2015).
[9] Employment and Social Development Canada, Information on Labour Standards 4: General Holidays (2015), available at
[10] Public Holidays, Tourist Information UK, (last visited Nov. 23, 2015).
[11] Holiday Entitlement, Gov.UK, (last visited Nov. 23, 2015).