Snow days are causes for mass celebration among schoolchildren everywhere. When we’re young, we contrive to increase the possibility of a snowstorm by sleeping with wooden spoons under our pillows and wearing our pajamas inside out. In elementary school, before the advent of e-mail chains, we’d wake up before dawn and rush to turn on the television, to search anxiously in the morning news for announcements of schools closing due to the snow. We were rewarded if our school was among the cancellations listed. A two-hour delay was a sort of consolation prize. From November through February (and if memory serves, a few times in October or March or even one memorable April), these snow days, unplanned vacations from the daily grind of school, held a special place in our hearts.
But these snow days weren’t the only days off. Looking back on my thirteen years in primary and secondary education and comparing my American experience to that of British friends at Oxford, it’s become increasingly clear that we consider a plethora of occasions reason to close schools. Of course, there are the religious holidays – the Jewish High Holy Days in the autumn, Christmas and Hanukah in December, Good Friday and Easter and Passover in the spring – but in the United States, these are only the tip of the holiday iceberg. Going through the calendar of a traditional school year, the number is astonishing.
Today is the first Monday of September – Labor Day in the United States. Some schools start the day after Labor Day, but if they’ve already begun, as many have, it’s the first day when children are given a free pass. Moving into October, Columbus Day commemorates the “discovery” of our nation, and many schools use this day as an opportunity for a four-day weekend, giving children the Friday prior off of school as well.

Next comes a holiday we may share with other nations; every year on November 11th we celebrate Veterans Day, to honour men and women who have served our country. As the date marking the end of the First World War, such celebrations may be more widespread. But of course, the next holiday in November is all-American: Thanksgiving. Celebrated on the last Thursday of the month, most schools end midday on Wednesday and are closed until the following week, in order for children to have ample time to watch the Macy’s parade, help parents cook, and of course gorge themselves on turkey and sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

In December are the Christmas holidays, a couple of weeks all at once, encompassing New Years’ Day as well; again, similar to other nations. But little more than a fortnight following, children are given a Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In February, President’s Day, an amalgam of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, is often turned into a four-to-five day break. Of course in March or April there’s another long vacation, and then at the end of May is Memorial Day. Some schools in the United States will end at this point, and others keep going for a few more weeks. All will be over by the close of June – often a few weeks prior to the Fourth of July, the national holiday of Independence Day.

Lest I forget, this brief overview includes only holidays which are officially observed, resulting in the closing of schools and sometimes workplaces. Looking at a calendar, there are a multitude of other holidays every month, ranging from the widespread (Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) to the wacky (Paul Bunyan Day), from the multicultural (months to honour Hispanic and African-American heritage, as well as a multitude of celebrations for various religions) to the educational (a day to honour teachers and a month dedicated to books). And there are the days to commemorate patriotism, both by state (Massachusetts and Maine celebrate Patriot’s Day on April 19th), and across the nation on Patriot Day, the 11th of September, and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, on the 7th of December.

Concluding such a summary, it’s clear that we celebrate and commemorate many people and events, and find many of them reason enough to close our schools. Of course in Britain there are national bank holidays and half-term breaks, which when added together may compensate for the dearth of other closures. But until coming to Oxford, I had never realized that the marking of days out of school or work which we consider commonplace, are in fact uniquely American.