November cultural events
In the U.S., there are three nationally observed events in November: Election Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving.
Election Day is scheduled for the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) of November. This means it can fall anywhere between November 2 and 8. Most interesting for international observers is the Presidential election, which is held every four years. These happen to fall on even-numbered years, with recent elections for President occurring in 2000, 2004, and 2008. All 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives stand for election or re-election every two years, so they are required to campaign and keep in touch with their home district voters frequently. Every two years, one-third of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate stand for election or re-election. A Senator’s term of office is then six years long, compared to only two for a Representative’s.
In odd-numbered years, there is less interest in national elections, and voters may have only local or statewide ballot issues to decide. These may include funding for local projects, or election of officials who govern local school boards, city councils, or township commissions. A recent statewide ballot proposal asked Michigan voters to outlaw gay marriage. A 2008 county-wide proposal where I live asked voters to approve sales of alcohol on Sundays (previously banned by the heavily religious population).
Polling places in Michigan are open from 7 AM to 8 PM. Most states across the country have similar voting times, in a range of 12-14 hours. If polls run out of ballots, voters who are waiting in line by the evening cutoff time are allowed to wait until they have cast their votes. Mail-in ballots are available for voters who are unable to travel to the polls (because they are sick, in jail, or out of town).
The national custom of voting on a Tuesday is drawing increasing criticism. The claim is that it disadvantages working class people who cannot leave their jobs during the day, who have children to pick up from daycare, and who have long commutes to and from work. Critics say it would be fairer to make Election Day a national holiday where no one would have work conflicts on that day. Still others propose making elections 48 hours long and moving them to the weekend to allow maximum voter participation.
Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day and was originally intended to celebrate the end of World War I. Today it commemorates all men and women who have served in the American armed forces. It is observed on November 11 with parades or special ceremonies. The President usually lays a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery that day. Banks are closed for this holiday, but schools and most other businesses remain open.
Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. It commemorates the first successful harvest of the early European settlers in Massachusetts and was an opportunity for them to give thanks for good weather, cooperation with local native Americans, and enough food to survive the oncoming winter.
Schools and businesses are closed for the day. Because the holiday is on Thursday, it gives most Americans a four-day weekend, so many people use this opportunity to travel back to their hometowns. Nationally, it is the busiest travel week for airlines. College students go home to be with family. Homeless shelters serve turkey and other traditional food. In addition to eating and visiting, Americans watch morning parades and afternoon football games on TV.
The most traditional meat served that day is turkey (although some eat ham). Americans typically eat too much that day, and tables are full to overflowing with special casseroles, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, gravy, rolls or corn bread. The most common dessert is pumpkin pie, but apple and mincemeat pies are also common.
The day after Thanksgiving marks the first day of the business year that retailers operate in the black, that is, begin to see profits. For this reason, merchants have come to call this day Black Friday. It is the busiest shopping day of the year, as early birds line up in pre-dawn hours to take advantage of limited-time sales. Black Friday is the first official shopping day for those getting ready for Christmastime giving.