Party Pointer: History of Presidents Day

The commercials for Presidents Day car and mattress sales have been playing on television for a week or more, but there’s got to be more to this holiday than that!

The history of Presidents Day is actually quite interesting. Many calendars list the third Monday of February as Presidents’ Day. Many U.S. states list the holiday as Presidents’ Day. But, contrary to popular belief, the observed federal holiday is actually called “Washington’s Birthday.”

Neither Congress nor the President has ever designated that the name of the holiday observed as Washington’s Birthday be changed to Presidents’ Day. Additionally, Congress has never declared a national holiday binding in all states, and each state chooses its own legal holidays. This is why there are some calendar inconsistencies.

Historically, Americans started celebrating George Washington’s Birthday just months after his death, The holiday was unofficially observed for most of the 1800s. Then, in 1879, it was signed into law by President Rutherford B. Hayes as a federal holiday and was the first holiday to celebrate the life of an individual.

Washington’s birthday was celebrated on February 22 until well into the twentieth century. In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” Congress wanted to give employees additional three-day weekends and reduce employee absenteeism.

The Monday Holiday Law included a provision to combine Washington’s birthday, which falls on February 22, with Lincoln’s birthday, which falls on February 12. Thus, though the holiday is still named as “Washington’s Birthday” in federal law, it soon was popularly understood to be a celebration of Washington, Lincoln, and all other citizens who served as President of the United States – thus, evolving to become “Presidents Day.”

To further complicate the name of the holiday, each state that made it a legal state holiday chose a variation on the name that best suited local history – naming the day after Washington, Lincoln, or actually using the name “Presidents Day” in the Act.

Today, George Washington’s Birthday is one of only eleven permanent holidays established by Congress.

Although the federal holiday is held on the third Monday of February, George Washington’s birthday is observed on February 22. But to complicate matters, Washington was actually born on February 11 in 1731!

During Washington’s lifetime, people in Great Britain and America switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar (something most of Europe had done in 1582). As a result of this calendar reform, people born before 1752 were told to add 11 days to their birth dates. Those born between January 1 and March 25, as Washington was, also had to add one year to be in sync with the new calendar. By the time Washington became president in 1789, he celebrated his birthday on February 22 and listed his year of birth as 1732.

While Presidents Day has now become a weekend for leisure and shopping, in many school districts across the country, students spend time in February learning about the history of these famous men who served our country. George Washington’s farewell address is still read in the Senate every February 22 – a tradition kept since 1862.

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