How can I explain the usage of the indefinite article in the following sentences?

  • Thanksgiving is a day when we celebrate the harvest.
  • New Year' Eve is a night when I have fun with my friends.

When you want to talk about the characteristics of Thanksgiving (e.g., its role in celebrating the harvest), you use the indefinite article "a." Thanksgiving is a particular day, perhaps among several, for harvest celebrations.

When you want to talk about the definition of Thanksgiving, use the definite article "the." Thanksgiving is the day to celebrate the harvest, that's what it's for, and it's the only one.

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  • Are these sentences correct 1. February 14 is the day when people give cards to the ones they love. 2. Valentine's Day is a day when peolpe give cards to the ones they love. – inga Jun 18 '15 at 21:08
  • They're both correct. As I noted, they just say slightly different things. For the unromantic, February 14 is just a day, some day, any old day, when people waste money on meaningless messages to those they claim to love, but for lovers, Valentine's Day is the special day to express their depth of feeling for each other to each other. (I may have exaggerated a bit for effect.) – deadrat Jun 18 '15 at 21:20
  • What about the use of the when I want to talk about a special Thanksgiving, e.g. the Thanksgiving in 2005, when aunt Elisabeth burned the turkey and we had to order something from a restaurant with delivery service. We had to wait 2 hours before we got our order. :-) – Daniel Jun 18 '15 at 21:25
  • Your last sentence is not quite correct. Thanksgiving is still a day to celebrate the harvest. It might be the main day in the USA and/or some other countries, but there can be others like the German "Erntedankfest", although that has a religious background. – Daniel Jun 18 '15 at 21:30
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    @Daniel, the particular ("the") implies membership in the general ("a"), and my sentence isn't to illustrate the truth about the fourth Thursday in November in the US, but rather the implication of the usage of articles. – deadrat Jun 18 '15 at 21:35

The question is whether the object is unique or not.

Thanksgiving is a day when we celebrate the harvest.

There may be several days when we celebrate the harvest; Thanksgiving is one of them.

New Year' Eve is a night when I have fun with my friends.

There are several nights when you have fun with your friends (if not, you should get out more). New Years' Eve is one of them.

Christmas is the day when Santa Claus brings presents for the children.

You wouldn't use a here, because there's only one day when he brings presents.

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