By and large, West Virginians observe the same holidays as other Americans and celebrate them in similar fashion. These include Independence Day, usually celebrated with fireworks and picnics, and the other patriotic holidays; the common religious and folk holidays; as well as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.
In an overwhelmingly Christian state, Christmas and Easter are the main religious holidays. Christmas, observed in a secular or religious manner, depending on family inclination, was once celebrated in the mountains with fireworks. Some older people are still mindful of Old Christmas, its January 6 date an artifact of the 18th-century change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
The Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah, are observed by the small Jewish population, while Muslim West Virginians honor Ramadan and other Islamic holidays. Some African-Americans observe Kwanzaa instead of or in addition to Christmas.
Labor Day carries a special meaning in a hard working and once heavily unionized state. Unions observe Labor Day locally throughout West Virginia, and the day is welcomed by all as the final holiday of summer. The state’s largest Labor Day event is the annual United Mine Workers picnic at Racine, Boone County, a carnival-like occasion which traditionally draws a large crowd and politicians of both parties.
Halloween, once a rowdy spree, has been domesticated in recent years. Municipalities set strict trick-or-treat hours, often a day or two before October 31, and sometimes try to divert children from the streets and into supervised parties. Middle-aged and older West Virginians remember a wilder holiday, especially in the rural countryside, with the blocking of roads and other serious mischief, including occasional, usually minor, destruction of property.
Ethnic holidays include Fasnacht, a German pre-Lenten observance corresponding roughly to the French Mardi Gras. Fasnacht is celebrated chiefly in the German Swiss community of Helvetia, Randolph County, with costumed feast and frolicking and the burning in effigy of Old Man Winter. Belsnickling is done among German-descended West Virginians, while the costumed Shanghai parade, of indeterminate origin, marks the New Year in Lewisburg.
West Virginia is among the few states to observe its own birthday as an official holiday, with citizens statewide pausing to honor June 20 as the day when, in 1863, Mountaineers became truly free. West Virginia Day celebrations typically take place in the capital city of Charleston, at West Virginia’s birthplace in Wheeling, and elsewhere.
The first day of deer hunting season, the Monday before Thanksgiving, has semiofficial status as a West Virginia holiday, with public schools and some workplaces closing for the day or week. West Virginians likewise observe Groundhog Day, falling on the same date as the religious feast of Candle mas, as a popular folk holiday.
Mother’s Day began in West Virginia, at Grafton, through the efforts of Anna Jarvis in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. The less popular Grandparents Day originated through the efforts of Marian McQuade of Oak Hill.
Written by Ken Sullivan