Everyone knows that Presidents Day is a federal holiday (which we hope you are enjoying, by the way) commemorating George Washington’s birthday. It’s also become the day we commemorate Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday was also in February on February 12. And some say it’s also a day we honor all U.S. Presidents. But, like most things, when we dig a bit deeper there’s always more to the story.
First, you have appreciate that George Washington was really a big deal for much of our early history. According to FactCheck.com:
“Throughout the 19th century, George Washington was the towering figure of U.S. history to the American public. In honor of the man who commanded the Continental Army and led the American colonies to victory in the Revolutionary War, served as first President of the United States of America, and earned the sobriquet “The Father of Our Country,” Washington’s Birthday, February 22, was celebrated with more patriotic fervor than any holiday save the Fourth of July. Accordingly, the observance of Washington’s Birthday was made official in 1885 when President Chester Alan Arthur signed a bill establishing it as a federal holiday. (Washington was actually born on February 11, 1732, under the Julian calendar in effect at the time he was born, but his birth date is reckoned as February 22 under the Gregorian calendar which was adopted in 1752.)”
While Abraham Lincoln was also a towering figure in American history, his birthday was never a federal holiday, though it was celebrated by many states and often combined with Washington’s Birthday because the birthdays were both in February.
The Presidents Day date was fixed on the calendar in 1971, when Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Act. This moved Washington’s Birthday (February 22), Memorial Day (May 30), and Veterans Day (November 11) from fixed dates to designated Mondays, and established as a federal holiday Columbus Day—which had previously been celebrated in some states on October 12—to a designated Monday. The Act was designed to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees, an idea which greatly appealed to the travel industry, according to sources in Wikipedia. Veterans Day was removed from this list of “always-on-Monday” holidays when it was moved back to its traditional date of November 11, by act of Congress in 1975, effective 1978.
So when did the holiday become known as Presidents Day? The answer is, it never really did…and it depends on where you live. Again according to to FactCheck.com:
“Washington’s Birthday has become Presidents’ Day (or President’s Day, or even Presidents Day; the usage is inconsistent) for many of us because federal holidays technically apply only to persons employed by the federal government (and the District of Columbia). Individual state governments do not have to observe federal holidays — most of them generally do (and most private employers and school districts follow suit), but federal and state holiday observances can differ. For example, former Confederate states have observed several holidays not recognized at a federal level (such as June 3, Jefferson Davis Day), and controversial Arizona governor Ev Mecham drew headlines in 1987 when one of his first official acts upon inauguration was to rescind an executive order issued by the previous governor that had established the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (a federal holiday) as an Arizona state holiday.”
Legislative efforts to clear up the confusion have been not been successful. Currently there are still many different official names for the holiday across the U.S., including, according to Wikipedia:
- Presidents Day
- President’s Day
- Presidents’ Day
- Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day
- Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day
- George Washington Day
- Washington’s Birthday
- Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday
- Washington–Lincoln Day
- Washington and Lincoln Day
- Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday
- George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday
- George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Bates Day
- Third Monday in February (a more generic term for the holiday once known as some version of President’s Day, now used here in California, where “Lincoln’s Day” is also separate holiday on February 12)
And those are just the ones that fall on the third Monday of February – some states have similar presidential recognition days, with different names, on different days, too.
Who knew it was so complicated?!