U.S. Profile - Symbols and Holidays


Overview of the Great Seal

Before it adjourned on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the newly independent United States passed a resolution:

Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.

Thus, three of the five men who had drafted the Declaration of Independence were brought together in further service to their country. The revolutionaries needed an emblem and national coat of arms to give visible evidence of a sovereign nation and a free people with high aspirations and grand hopes for the future. The task proved far more difficult than anticipated; it took six years, two more committees, and the combined efforts of 14 men before the Great Seal of the United States became a reality on June 20, 1782.

Symbolically, the seal reflects the beliefs and values that the Founding Fathers attached to the new nation and wished to pass on to their descendants. The report which Charles Thomson submitted to the Congress explained the obverse this way: The red and white stripes of the shield "represent the several states ... supporting a [blue] Chief which unites the whole and represents Congress." The colors are adopted from the American flag: "White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the colour of the Chief, signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice." The shield, or escutcheon, is "born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue."

The number 13, denoting the 13 original States, is represented in the bundle of arrows, the stripes of the shield, and the stars of the constellation. The olive branch and the arrows "denote the power of peace & war." The constellation of stars symbolizes a new nation taking its place among other sovereign states. The motto E Pluribus Unum, emblazoned across the scroll and clenched in the eagle's beak, expresses the union of the 13 States. Recent scholarship has pointed out the probable source of this motto: Gentlemen's Magazine, published in London from 1732 to 1922, was widely read by the educated in the American Colonies. Its title page carried that same motto and it is quite possible that it influenced the creators of the seal.

The reverse, sometimes referred to as the spiritual side of the seal, contains the 13-step pyramid with the year 1776 in Roman numerals on the base. At the summit of the pyramid is the Eye of Providence in a triangle surrounded by a Glory (rays of light) and above it appears the motto Annuit Coeptis. Along the lower circumference of the design appear the words Novus Ordo Seclorum, heralding the beginning of the new American era in 1776.

Overview of U.S. Holidays

The United States, like other nations, sets aside a number of days each year to commemorate events, people or public occasions. These holidays typically are marked by a general suspension of work and business activity, and by public and/or religious ceremonies.

Technically, the United States does not celebrate national holidays, but Congress has designated 10 "legal public holidays," during which most federal institutions are closed and most federal employees are excused from work. Although the individual states and private businesses are not required to observe these, in practice all states, and nearly all employers, observe the majority of them.

Since 1971, a number of these have been fixed on Mondays rather than on a particular calendar date so as to afford workers a long holiday weekend.

- Abridged from State Dept. Publications and other U.S. government materials
Symbols of the United States
The National Anthem and Patriotic Songs
The Flag
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