It’s the holidays. And I can think of no better time to learn how to write holidays — the specific ones, I mean, like the one that celebrates mothers or the one that recognizes veterans or any of the other holidays you’re sure you know how to write until you sit down to write it.
Is it Mother’s Day, as in one mother, or does the name recognize that the day belongs to all of them, making it Mothers’ Day?
Do veterans really own their day, which would make it Veterans’ Day, or are they recognized in a more adjectival fashion, which would make it Veterans Day?
And what might St. Patrick and St. Valentine say about all this?
First things first: Xmas is not an Xing out of Christ, as some would have you believe. “The prejudice against it is unfounded and unfortunate,” writes Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage. “The X is not a Roman X but a Greek chi — the first letter in Christ’s name.”
The real controversy is which indefinite article to use before it. That is, would you say “an Xmas gift” or “a Xmas gift”?
Here’s Garner again: “The answer depends on how readers hear the word in the mind’s ear. If readers hear ‘Christmas,’ then ‘a’ is the correct indefinite article. If readers hear ‘Eksmas,’ then ‘an’ would be correct.” The final question: Should you put a hyphen in there: X-mas? No. I checked four dictionaries. They all like Xmas better.
Moving on to New Year’s Eve and day: It’s possessive, Year’s. If you’re talking about a new year and not about the holiday, you should leave it lowercase: new year. Otherwise, you want New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Moving on to Presidents Day: For holidays that seem to suggest possession but at the same time don’t, your knowledge of apostrophes and powers of logical deduction are useless here. Sometimes the first word functions as a possessor, as in Presidents’ Day. Sometimes it’s more like an adjective, as in Presidents Day.
In the case of this holiday, it’s both. Major dictionaries say this should be plural possessive, Presidents’ Day. The Associated Press Stylebook goes its own way with Presidents Day. Either way is correct.
Valentine’s Day. Don’t think of this as the day for Valentines. Think of it as the day belonging to St. Valentine. That’s why it’s singular possessive. You can include the Saint or not and you can abbreviate it, or not.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary advocates “Saint Valentine’s Day.” Merriam-Webster’s writes it “St. Valentine’s Day.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Don’t include Rev. or Dr. in the holiday — neither the AP Stylebook nor the Chicago Manual of Style support that. And don’t put a comma before Jr.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “Groundhog Day.” Everyone, myself included, seems to say “Groundhog’s Day.” We’re all wrong. It’s singular, not possessive, according to dictionaries.
There was just one St. Patrick, and March 17 is his day. Hence, it’s written St. Patrick’s Day.
When April rolls around, remember there’s more than one fool, and the day’s all theirs. Hence the spelling April Fools’ Day, which dictionaries and the AP Stylebook agree is the way to go.
As for Mom: Yes, the day belongs to all mothers. But that’s not how it’s written. Go singular possessive, Mother’s Day. Father’s Day gets the same treatment. Think of it as your dad’s day and his alone.
Veterans Day. Here’s where the rules get a little maddening. Unlike Presidents’ Day, which often takes an apostrophe, Veterans Day does not, according to major dictionaries and AP, too.