Celebrating Presidents Day in the Chathams

Who we celebrate and why.

What exactly is the purpose of Presidents Day?

It's not just about weekend sales and holidays from school. Of course, . But there is also a complex and detailed history of the holiday we know as Presidents Day.

Depending on what state you are from, some Americans may remember years where both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington's birthdays were holidays. In more recent years, though, the holiday has been consolidated into a single day, celebrated on the third Monday in February.

Actually, the holiday honors George Washington and bears only his name in state and federal law.

Washington’s birthday was first officially celebrated on Feb. 22, 1880. It was one of a growing list of federal holidays authorized by Congress a year earlier. Although it originally applying only to federal workers in Washington, D.C., observance expanded to include all federal workers in 1885.

In 1971, this practice became the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act took Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day and moved them to specific Mondays in the year from their previous date-specific observances.

Since then, United States Code designates the third Monday in February a holiday in honor of Washington’s Birthday. No federal holiday exists celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or Presidents Day--though New Jersey recognizes Feb. 12 as Lincoln's Birthday, and retailers recognize the holiday as Presidents Day for the purpose of selling merchandise.

And just in case all of this wasn't complex enough, Ancestry Magazine states Washington was born on Feb. 11, 1731, not Feb. 22, 1732, under the Julian calendar in use at the time. The British Empire didn’t switch to our current Gregorian calendar until 1752.

So where did all this confusion come from? It seems to have started with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. An early draft of the bill changed Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day, but that language changed back after public outcry.

Shortly after the Act took effect, erroneous newspaper reports quoted a proclamation in which President Richard Nixon stated all presidents should be honored on the third Monday of February, but no such proclamation exists. Popular usage of the Presidents Day moniker evolved over the years, especially in retail advertising, to replace Washington’s Birthday.

Throw in the hodgepodge of state holidays celebrating Lincoln, Washington, or both and it is easy to forget the roots of this federal holiday.

To learn more about the presidents, check out a selection of books on them at the Library of the Chathams.


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