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A Word, Please: A guide on how to write names of holidays

The new year, that is, New Year’s, is upon us. Soon after will come Presidents Day, also known as Presidents’ Day, then Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Veterans Day, Xmas and a bunch of other holidays no one knows how to write.

Partly because so many holidays are possessive, there’s a lot of confusion about how to write them. That confusion is compounded by a system in which logic is useless.

Try to puzzle out whether to put an apostrophe in Veterans Day and you’ll see what I mean. If the day belongs to veterans, then it would be their day, “Veterans’ Day.” But in fact, the holiday name suggests not that the day is owned by them, but that it’s about them. Thus, it’s correctly written Veterans Day with no apostrophe, according to major style guides and dictionaries.

Some people would guess that. But those same people would be baffled if they opened a book, a magazine or even a dictionary and saw “Presidents’ Day.” Unlike Veterans Day, which never takes an apostrophe, Presidents Day usually does. Just not here.

Newspaper style prefers no apostrophe in this holiday, even though that’s in direct opposition to its own dictionary, Webster’s New World College, as well as Merriam-Webster’s and the Chicago Manual of Style.

That’s right: Publishing styles and even dictionaries disagree on how some holidays are properly written. So the only way to get them right is to know which publishing manual to reference, then know which dictionary that manual follows, then check all that apply.

Luckily, I’ve done that for you. So here is a year’s worth of correctly written holiday names.

New Year, New Year’s, New Year’s Day, New Year’s Eve. When used in the generic sense, a new year is simply a new year — no capital letters needed. But the holiday, like most holidays, is treated as a proper noun, with capital letters. It’s always in the singular possessive. It takes an apostrophe before the “S” anytime an “S” is included.

Valentine’s Day. It would be easy to mistakenly write this as plural. After all, you and your valentine are each other’s valentines. The holiday is all about the two of you. But its name isn’t. It’s a reference to Saint Valentine and it’s written as his day, capital “V,” singular possessive: Valentine’s Day. If you want to include the saint part, however, you have two choices. Webster’s New World uses “Saint Valentine’s Day.” Merriam-Webster’s writes it “St. Valentine’s Day.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day. According to both of the nation’s major editing styles, this holiday takes no “Rev.,” no “Dr.” and no comma before “Jr.”

Groundhog Day has no “S” at all, so you don’t need to worry about an apostrophe.

St. Patrick’s Day. This one’s easy because the name Patrick readily conjures the idea of a single dude.

April Fools’ Day. The apostrophe after the S is recommended by the major dictionaries and AP style.

Mother’s Day. This one is singular possessive. Think of it as the day belonging to Mother, not mothers. Yes, either way would be just as logical. But singular possessive has become the standard form in dictionaries and publishing manuals.

Father’s Day. Same deal. It’s his day and his alone.

Veterans Day. As we’ve already noted, this one is plural and not possessive.

Xmas. This term contains no hyphen and, despite assumptions to the contrary, does not remove Christ from the holiday. The “X” is actually a reference to Jesus. It represents the Greek letter “chi” — the first letter in Jesus’ name.

The only truly controversial thing about Xmas is which indefinite article to put in front of it. Is it “a Xmas gift” or “an Xmas gift”?

The answer may surprise you: It depends solely on how you imagine it to be pronounced, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. If you’d say it “eksmas,” use “an.” If you’d pronounce it “Christmas,” use “a.”
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JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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