Holiday – definition and meaning

The word holiday refers to having time off, but its meaning is not the same everywhere. North Americans use the term differently from people in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The word ‘holiday’ emerged in the English language in 15th century Britain. It came from Old English haligdæg, which meant ‘holy day, religious anniversary, Sabbath, or consecrated day.’ The Old English word halig meant ‘holy,’ while ‘dæg’ meant ‘day.’

The ‘Happy Holidays‘ greeting emerged in England in the mid-nineteenth century. It originally referred to children’s summer vacation. It became a Christmastime greeting in the US in 1937, thanks to a Camel cigarette ad.

Holiday – United States

In the United States, a holiday is a day when people are exempt from work or school. It is usually in commemoration of an event, such as 4th July.

A holiday weekend is a long weekend, i.e., at least three days long. They occur when there is a public holiday either on Monday or Friday. If two consecutive public holiday days join a weekend, people enjoy a four-day weekend.

The greeting ‘Happy Holidays’ is an alternative to ‘Seasons Greetings’ or ‘Merry Christmas.’

The term ‘Happy Holidays’ refers to that time of year when Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the New Year fall. Boxing Day and Festivus also fall during that period.

Holiday - definition in different countries
People in the USA and Canada use the word ‘holiday’ slightly differently from those in the British Isles and other Commonwealth nations.

‘Happy Holidays’ is a more inclusive greeting than Merry Christmas. It is more inclusive because it includes non-Christian people who also have time off during that time of the year.

So, which one should you use if you are a North American Christian and want to greet somebody in December? says the following:

“A good rule of thumb: if you don’t know what someone celebrates, use the broader term (Happy Holidays). It is as easy as that.”

“It’s not an insult to Christmas. It’s an inclusive way of wishing someone well and showing that you respect and value whatever tradition they observe.”

When North Americans say ‘vacation,’ they are talking about time off work, and not public holidays.

If a North American says “I’m on vacation,” what does it mean? It means the person is not working, i.e., they are using their annual time-off-work days.

UK, Ireland, Australasia, S. Africa

People in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa use the term differently from North Americans.

When North Americans say ‘On vacation,’ the rest of the English-speaking world says ‘On holiday.’ However, the term ‘on vacation’ also exists in those countries, but it is less common.

In the UK, for example, ‘my holidays’ refers to time off work or school. Specifically, non-work days that have nothing to do with public holidays.

If Australians, for example, say “What I like about teaching are the holidays,” what does it mean? It means they like the long periods without work that teachers get. It does not refers to how teachers spend their Christmas period.

In the British Isles, a Bank Holiday is the equivalent of a Public Holiday in North America. The idea behind the meaning was that when the banks weren’t open, neither were most businesses. Economies are different today; there are many businesses now that operate every day.

When talking about time off during the Christmas period, non-North Americans say ‘Christmas Holidays.’ For adults, the term means the few bank holidays (USA: public holidays) that they get. For children, on the other hand, it refers to their two-week or three-week break.

Britons, Irish people, South Africans, and Australasians understand the word ‘vacation.’ Most of them are aware of how North Americans use the term.

The word vacation is part of the English language in every English-speaking country.

Most Americans understand how Britons use the term holiday(s), especially Americans who live in the North East.

American vs. British English

There are several words which Britons and Americans use and spell differently. For example, Britons say ‘to hire a car’ or ‘to rent a car,’ while Americans only say ‘to rent a car.’

The use of ‘hire’ is slightly different in other aspects too. In most cases, the Commonwealth countries use British English, while Canada uses American English.

However, in some cases, Canadians use British English. Many Canadians call the letter ‘Z’ ‘zed’ rather than ‘zee.’ Canadians often spell words the British way.

Video – Holiday: British vs. American

This Evan Edinger video looks at how Americans and Britons use the word ‘holidays.’