For decades, Americans have observed Presidents Day on the third Monday of February (this year, that falls on Feb. 20). It’s a federal holiday that affords us an opportunity to take advantage of sales aplenty or simply relax and enjoy a three-day weekend.
But what are the origins of the holiday? And who exactly are we honoring? Here are five things to keep in mind.
The holiday is called Presidents Day, right?
Not necessarily. On the federal calendar, it’s specified as Washington’s Birthday — a day to honor George Washington, our first president. As the federal Office of Personnel Management notes on its website: “This holiday is designated as ‘Washington’s Birthday’ in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.”
But as the Office of Personnel Management indicates, states can — and will — do their own thing. And many, from Alaska to Wyoming, recognize the holiday as Presidents Day.
When did Presidents Day — er, Washington’s Birthday — become an official federal holiday?
The country has been observing Washington’s birthday, which falls on Feb. 22, for many years in one form or another. In 1837, for example, President Andrew Jackson held a reception in Washington’s honor on the day, replete with, um, a 1,400-pound hunk of cheese that was a gift from a New York dairy farmer, according to the White House Historical Association.
By 1879, Washington’s birthday became a federally recognized holiday, notes the website for Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of the late president. But it wasn’t until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 that the official celebration of Washington’s birthday was designated as the third Monday in February (the law didn’t go into effect until 1971, however). That turned the presidential hoopla into a three-day weekend.
So how did Presidents Day become the common name for the day?
According to Snopes.com, there was talk of creating a Presidents Day as far back as the 1950s as a way of celebrating Washington’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) at the same time. And people often think the third Monday of February is just that: a combined celebration of two great presidents, despite the Washington’s Birthday federal designation. But again, many states do designate it as Presidents Day.
And Snopes.com says those state designations helped solidify the day as Presidents Day in the country’s collective consciousness, As the website notes, “federal holidays technically apply only to persons employed by the federal government (and the District of Columbia).”
The Mount Vernon folks blame Madison Avenue for what they call the Presidents Day “misnomer,” saying on their website, “In the 1980s, thanks to advertising campaigns for holiday sales, the term became popularized and largely accepted.”
How do fans of George Washington feel about all this?
We can’t speak for all the George Washington groupies out there. But the Mount Vernon crowd certainly has strong opinions. “Bring Back Washington’s Birthday!” they say on the Mount Vernon website. And they’re calling on others to write to their elected officials and tell them the same.
“As a founding father, and our first President, (Washington’s) character and accomplishments should not be muddled into a holiday as a vague as ‘Presidents’ Day,’” the Mount Vernon site says.
What’s a good way to celebrate Washington’s Birthday — or, if you prefer, Presidents Day?
Take your pick: You can visit Mount Vernon for free. Or you can attend a day “of presidential storytelling, musical performances, and more” at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Or you can shop till you drop — in person or online (hey, there’s a bamboo standing desk on sale).
Or maybe just curl up at home with a good book — say, Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life,” which is considered one of the definitive biographies of our first president. After all, it is Washington’s birthday — at least to some people.