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How are federal holidays created?

How are federal holidays decided and how does that affect each state?
How are federal holidays decided and how does that affect each state? 02:25

ST. PAUL, Minn. — On Wednesday, the United States celebrates Juneteenth. It's a distinction shared by only 10 other special days.

So, we wanted to know: How are federal holidays created? And how does that designation affect each state? Good Question.

The 19th of June has held special significance in our country for more than 150 years. It was on that day in 1865 that slaves in Galveston, Texas were finally freed — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth, it would go on to be called, started with small celebrations in the Lone Star State, the first steps in a long journey to earning a relatively exclusive distinction of federal holiday in 2021.

"If you think of distinction it's supposed to be perhaps a day of reflection to remember something about that date," said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.

How does a holiday get federal status? 

"Simple way to do it is Congress has to pass a law," he said.

Like other bills, a federal holiday is proposed in the U.S. Senate and House. If both pass it, all that's left is the president's signature.

"It first started back in 1870 when Congress first created four federal holidays," said Schultz.

The first four were New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, with six more to follow over the next century.

While they only apply to federal offices and workers, states typically declare them as holidays as well, sometimes even before they've earned federal status.

"States are not required to follow (federal holidays), including state governments and the private sector. Private businesses, schools, are not required to follow it," said Schultz. "Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a great example. It becomes declared a federal holiday (in 1986) and there were several states, for example, such as Arizona and South Dakota, that really didn't recognize it for many years."

There have been times that presidents used executive power to declare a one-time federal holiday, usually for the funeral of a former president as a National Day of Mourning.

Before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, 48 states recognized it as a Day of Observance. South Dakota did not. Texas had already declared it a state holiday in 1980.

Every four years, there's a bonus federal holiday: Inauguration Day. However, it only applies to federal workers in Washington, DC.

To see a full list of the federal holidays, click here.

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