late 14c., "freedom from obligations, leisure, release" (from some activity or occupation), from Old French vacacion "vacancy, vacant position" (14c.) and directly from Latin vacationem (nominative vacatio) "leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service," noun of state from past participle stem of vacare "be empty, free, or at leisure" (see vain).
Meanings "state of being unoccupied," "process of vacating" in English are early 15c. Meaning "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment" (in reference to schools, courts, etc.) is recorded from mid-15c. As the U.S. equivalent of what in Britain is called a holiday, it is attested from 1878.