Presidents’ Day: The Holiday that Doesn’t Exist

This weekend is a three-day weekend here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The third Monday of February is Presidents’ Day, a day where we honor the history and legacy of our nation’s leaders by, apparently, holding big sales at all the major retail stores and car dealerships. It’s a day off of work for government employees and bankers, and a day off of school for children nationwide. This is the weekend where the Daytona 500 is held, and various historical societies will hold reenactments to educate Americans about our nation’s history.

Except Presidents Day doesn’t technically exist.

The official, legal name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday. It is a holiday intended to honor George Washington and his role as father of our country. So, where did this President’s Day business come from?

Let’s start at the beginning. When George Washington was born, his birth date was recorded in colonial Virginia’s records as February 11, 1731. However, at that time Great Britain and its overseas colonies were all still using the Julian calendar, the ancient Roman calendar devised by Julius Caesar that had been phased out in most of western Europe in favor of the more accurate Gregorian calendar we use today. As I’ve mentioned on my blog before, the Gregorian calendar was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII for use by Roman Catholics, and many non-Catholic countries, such as Britain, were reluctant to adopt it. In 1752, however, the British decided to make the switch, and their colonies soon followed suit. At the time, it was common practice for people to “adjust” their birthdays to match the new calendar. For this reason, George Washington’s birthday was now February 22, 1732.

Washington was a modest man who really didn’t like making a big fuss about his birthday, and usually spent it the same way he would spend any other day. However, he couldn’t escape the enthusiasm of his countrymen. During the War of Independence, the Continental Army’s band would play music for him outside his quarters. Once he became president, big parties were thrown in his honor all across the nation. After his death, the day remained a popular holiday among Americans, but it only became an official federal holiday – meaning it would be a legal day off for workers and students – in 1879.

Posters like these were used to inform people that businesses would be closed on the day

Of course, this was after the presidency and death of that OTHER great American leader we all know and love:

Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as the man who led America through the Civil War, freed the slaves, and became the first U.S. president to be assassinated led to many wanting to honor his memory with an official holiday. The city of Buffalo, New York, held a celebration on his birthday in 1873, and one of the city’s prominent residents, Julius Francis, lobbied Congress to make Lincoln’s Birthday a federal holiday. Unfortunately for Francis, Congress never did, perhaps in part because of the bitter feelings felt in a certain collection of states that had just been brought back into the Union. *Ahem.*

Still, many states decided to go ahead and make Lincoln’s Birthday an official state holiday, meaning that within their state it would be a day off of work and school for festivities honoring Honest Abe and his legacy. To this day, the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth is marked by ceremonies at his birthplace and at the Lincoln Memorial.

Just one problem. Lincoln was also born in February. His birthday was February 12, 1809. This means that Lincoln and Washington have birthdays that are only 10 days apart.

This came to be an issue in the 1960s, as Congress began trying to reorganize American federal holidays to create fewer disruptions to business and commerce. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was adopted, moving several national holidays, including Washington’s Birthday, so that they always fall on a Monday. It was reasoned that creating the “three-day weekend” as a standard for American holidays would benefit businesses and workers and reduce the number of awkward workweeks that are split in two by a holiday falling mid-week.

This desire to reduce disruptions to the workweek also motivated most of those states that had made Lincoln’s Birthday an official state holiday to combine it with Washington’s Birthday. Otherwise, these states would end up with two holidays, back to back, in the same month. So it was that states like Colorado, Indiana, Montana, Minnesota, Ohio and Utah ended up adopting a merged holiday, naming it something like “Washington-Lincoln Day” or “Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday”.

However, these names weren’t very snappy. Many businesses in the retail industry quickly realized that this would be a good time of the year to push their February sales, but they wanted a catchy name that people would immediately recognize. Since the day honored two famous U.S. presidents, they decided to go with “Presidents Day”. Their advertising popularized this name, and it quickly became the name most Americans used for the holiday, and gradually, most states adopted this name for it as well.

There was an interesting consequence, though, to having this name being one that was popularized informally. Have you noticed that I have been inconsistent throughout this blog post about how I punctuate Presidents’ Day? This is deliberate, and it’s because there is no consistent punctuation for President’s Day. Different states will place the apostrophe before or after the “s”, or drop it altogether.¬†Arizona makes things even more complicated, officially calling it “Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day”, thus defeating the whole point of adopting the shorter, easier “Presidents’ Day” name.

Inconsistency between the states making things more complicated is one of the defining characteristics of this holiday. Today, the vast majority of the states honor Presidents Day, by whatever name, as a way to combine the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington into a single holiday. However, six states still honor Lincoln’s Birthday as a separate holiday, accepting that they will have two holidays in quick succession: Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York, and my home state of California.

Meanwhile, some southern states that sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War have gone the exact opposite route, refusing to honor Lincoln with a holiday. Virginia simply has George Washington Day, and Louisiana has Washington’s Birthday. Oddly enough, Massachusetts, a Union state, also only honors George Washington’s birthday, though this may in part be because the state has a separate “Presidents Day” held on May 29 to honor the many U.S. presidents that were born in the state.

Alabama and Arkansas, however, take it one step further. They are so opposed to honoring Lincoln that they actually decided to honor someone else alongside Washington on the third Monday of February. In Alabama, they have “George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday” as their celebration, even though Jefferson was born in April. Then again, this is the same state that decided it would be a good idea to designate the third Monday of January as “Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday”, so I guess rational consistency in their holidays is just a bit too much to ask of Alabama’s politicians.

Arkansas, on the other hand, decided to name the third Monday of February “George Washington and Daisy Gatson Bates Day”. Daisy Gatson Bates was an African-American journalist, newspaper owner, and civil rights activist whose Arkansas State Press reported on the controversies surrounding the racial integration of schools in Little Rock in 1957.

Who would have guessed that something so seemingly simple as a holiday would turn out to be so darn complicated? Well, I suppose whatever holiday you happen to be celebrating this weekend, I certainly hope you have a good one.