What day is it? Your answer could be anything from Monday through Sunday. But if you ask me, I could easily say, “It’s National Women’s Equality Day! It’s National Dog Day! It’s National Cherry Popsicle Day!” (August 26, as I write this. Of course, there is a National Cat Day, October 29)

Whatever day it is, it’s a good day to explore an adaptable (K through university) activity that engages as much integrated content as you choose, including language skills, history, government and civics, cultures, and physics and math as well as critical and creative thinking and analysis, multiple intelligences, and learning styles.

Across countries and cultures, national holidays are common. The well-known holidays are related to religious or historical events (or people) though they may not represent the religions and histories of all citizens, such as Christmas, which some Christians do not celebrate, or in the U.S., Columbus Day.

But in the United States, not all national days, weeks, or months are holidays in the traditional and legal sense, and generally, these other, often unfamiliar commemorations, are inclusive. If you don’t like cherry popsicles, for example, perhaps you can support NOPW, National Orange Popsicle Week, whose mission is to “raise awareness of stroke in young people.” And if orange popsicles don’t tempt your tastebuds, perhaps National Chocolate Day, National Ice Cream Day, or National Doughnut Day will appeal to you.

The United States has quite a history of “commemorative legislation,” dating back to Congress’ founding, “Congress has used commemorative legislation to express public gratitude for distinguished contributions; dramatize the virtues of individuals, groups, and causes; and perpetuate the remembrance of significant events. During the past two centuries, commemoratives have become an integral part of the American political tradition.” Early commemorations were medals honoring individuals, groups, or causes.

Over the centuries, buildings, monuments, proclamations, postage stamps, coins, and medals have been used to celebrate, honor, memorialize, or eulogize. Commemorative legislation has waxed and waned, but as long as constituents alert their legislators and legislators see the political advantage in sponsoring commemorative legislation, it will continue.

However, such commemorative legislation serves more than a political purpose. Drawing attention to critical causes is also a key reason for commemorative legislation. Former Senate Historian Donald Ritchie notes, “Members of Congress see it as an inexpensive way to give attention to a good cause or group.” As a result, the U.S. has National Safe Boating Week, White Cane Safety Day, and National Cancer Control Month, among dozens of others.

Congressional legislation is one approach to securing commemoration for a good cause or an outstanding person or group. Presidential proclamation is another. In 1984, for example, President Ronald Reagan, in order to support the U.S. dairy industry and its surplus of 500 million pounds of cheese, proclaimed National Ice Cream Month and National Ice Cream Day. And there are faux commemorative days created by companies to drive sales. “[...] The industries are now baldly creating” (their own commemorative days), which are not congressionally legislated or presidentially proclaimed. Such fascinating, and arguably little known, background is the foundation for a robust activity.

Congressionally legislated or presidentially proclaimed holidays are a great entree to the activity. You can adapt this activity for any level (see resources linked in and at the end of this article). You can present this activity as a multi-part, long-term project, as a short term activity, as a slice of the whole, or something else.

Students can (should) alternate working individually, in pairs, or in small groups. There are a couple of ways to begin the activity. For one, you can show a blank calendar, and ask students what holidays they’re aware of, when the holidays fall, and why the holidays are holidays (show a big, month-at-a-time calendar, use individual calendars, or project a calendar in slides. Use your computer browser to search “gigantic laminated calendar” and “printable calendar templates” for plenty of options).

If you use a calendar that has holidays identified, ask students what they know about the holidays and why the holidays exist. Then, ask students how the holidays became holidays. Once students have shared their thoughts, explain the activity goals, objectives, and outcomes (GOOs) and the steps in the activity or project.

Perhaps your goals are to introduce students to some American history, civics, and governmental processes while applying their critical and creative thinking and language and presentation skills. Perhaps, in addition to having your students use their language skills, you want to teach them about calendars, which includes history, physics, and math. I suggest you make the activity as integrated as possible by having students write, read, create and illustrate projects, and make presentations. This is also a good activity to introduce or continue lessons on identifying reliable and unreliable sources.

Once students are in the holiday mindset and you have introduced the lesson’s purpose, use a CAT to elicit students’ questions or concerns and address them. Ongoing, non-threatening, ungraded assessment (process monitoring) provides teachers with necessary insight and allows them to respond quickly to students’ queries or misunderstandings.

Next, choose a holiday that is inclusive: the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. is an excellent one, because, “This is not a black holiday; it’s a people’s holiday,” as King’s widow, Coretta, observed when President Reagan made the holiday official in 1983. Students may have chosen this holiday when you first asked them about holidays.

Ask students what they know about Dr. King and have them share their knowledge; then, check their understanding with the large group. (I prefer to use pairs and small groups for initial discussion and then follow it by large group discussion because beginning by large group discussion tends to silence introspective and shy students while allowing vociferous students to dominate).

At this point, you can have students gather information about Dr. King, or you can use prepared materials. Then, guide students through documents or resources for how federal holidays are created. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has a particularly intriguing history because many citizens and national and state legislators vehemently opposed it.

After exploring the history of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, ask students if they’ve heard of lesser known legitimate commemorative days, such as Constitution Day or Wright Brothers Day. An excellent one to use is Pi Day, which began in 1988 at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a “public learning laboratory,” and became a commemorative holiday in 2009.

Pi Day is a clever and fun one to use because it has become common to eat pie while celebrating mathematics (pi/pie also offers an example of a homonym, and here’s a great lesson for puns). Ask: What are these days? Why do they exist? Why are schools open on these days if they are special? These questions become the springboard for the lesson’s next steps during which you explore commemorative legislation and presidential proclamations.

After the lesson(s) on the process for establishing a commemorative day, you can introduce the contrived commemorative days. Ask students if they think National Rotisserie Chicken Day, Avocado Day, or Unicorn Day are authentic (legislated or proclaimed) and have them justify their responses. Next, introduce the notion that some “national” days (micro holidays, not to be confused with the World of Warcraft events, though the concept is similar) are not official commemorative holidays.

Students can have fun seeing what “holidays” fall on their birthday. Ask students, “Why do you think these micro holidays exist? Why can the creators call them national holidays when they aren’t?”

At least one company is dedicated to “making new days” and its mission is to sell calendars. It is “very busy selling and placing ads on the website, distributing a printed calendar, developing a clothing line, doing appearances at festivals, collecting licensing fees, creating a nationally syndicated radio segment, and developing an app, a TV show, and a ‘potential movie.’” Holidays expressly devised for retail purposes make for an outstanding lesson on commercialism, advertising, and propaganda.

Following pair-group-class discussion, examine the materials, which will need to be adapted based on reading and comprehension levels. Use the subtitle of the Micro-Holiday article to ask students, “If you could create a holiday, what holiday would you want to create?” For a particularly meaningful lesson, have students create both an authentic holiday—one that they might present to their congressional representatives — and a whimsical one.

Moreover, they can create one for their birthdays or the birthdays of their parents, grandparents, siblings, companion animals, anyone they choose. Have them cross reference their created holidays with ones that exist; if their suggestion already exists, students must try again.

Outcomes should have students successfully demonstrate their understanding of the purposes of both legislated or proclaimed commemorative holidays and those created for business reasons. Likewise, students should demonstrate critical analysis when making their choices while effectively arguing and persuading others to support their choices.

Very young children can be taught to accomplish these skills. Imagine the possibilities: Students can assume the roles of constituents and representatives and senators and write their own bill; lobby their class or state or national congressional delegation; create and present a class calendar; plan events with specific practices, explain the importance of the practices, and demonstrate how to perform them; and/or design and play board or video games or puzzles based in history, civics, the governmental process, physics, and math all while using their authentic language skills and vocabulary and rigorously engaging their critical and creative thinking and analysis skills.

You can use some or all of the activities here; if, for example, you are pressed for preparation and presentation time, focus on part of the activity, such as on creating a legislated or proclaimed commemorative holiday or on a fanciful day, and skip the rest. My focus is on creating a better holiday than the National Bicarbonate of Soda Day, which falls on my birthday. Mark your calendar.

Additional Resources