The Origin of Presidents Day
In 1885, Congress officially set aside February 22 as a national holiday to honor the birth of America’s first President, George Washington. Thus, the holiday we know as “Presidents Day” began as a day to celebrate only one President. And, legally, it is still (at least at the federal level) a day exclusive to George Washington.
In the decades following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, there began a movement to honor the 16th President as well as our first one. Since Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) fell so close to Washington’s birthday (February 22 by the modern calendar), it became popular and fashionable to celebrate both birthdays. (Those readers who have birthdays on or close to December 25 understand how this kind of thing happens). Some states began doing this.
In the 1960s, Congress considered officially re-naming Washington’s holiday to “Presidents Day” to honor both men. That was shot down, but Congress did pass the Monday Holidays Act, taking Washington’s birthday holiday away from his actual birthday and moving it to the third Monday in February.
By the late 1980s, thanks to several states and (most significantly) retail establishments advertising “Presidents Day” sales on TV, the name “Presidents’ Day” stuck in popular culture.
Most businesses, calendars, and individuals now say “Presidents Day” rather than “George Washington’s Birthday Observed” (even though the latter is the federally designated, official name for the February holiday).
The Legacy of Presidents Day
Though the original intent behind the “Presidents Day” concept was to honor both Lincoln and Washington, the day has lost much of its significance. It now stands as a weak celebration of all our Presidents.
And, most people pass by the holiday with little regard for its meaning anyway. They simply see it as a day off work. An extra day to travel, visit family, or shop.
The Monday Holidays Act may be good for the economy and convenient for families, but it’s terrible for holiday celebrations. After all, the root concept behind “holiday” is “holy day” – a day to set someone or something aside as sacred and worthy of celebration.
Of course, I’m not saying that George Washington was holy. He was a flesh-and-blood human being — one flawed in many areas. But the original dream (carried out in 1885 by federal law) to honor the Father of our Country with a day set aside for esteem and celebration has long vanished.
And, for that matter, those who wish to honor Abraham Lincoln by hijacking Washington’s day have fared little better. Their man has also been lost in the ambiguous, meaningless “Presidents Day.”
At this point, the term “Presidents Day” is deeply entrenched in American culture and in popular lexicon. Eradicating it will be nigh unto impossible, unless we move “Presidents Day” to another date (say January 20 when we inaugurate Presidents?) or return Washington’s birthday holiday to the actual day of his birth. As for honoring Lincoln, the expensive solution (expensive in terms of cost to the federal government, but perhaps good for the economy) is to have two holidays in February. Give both Washington and Lincoln their own individual day.
Whatever our society decides, the status quo is unacceptable. At a time when the American people repeatedly demonstrate a pathetic ignorance of basic history and civics, we should be holding up our nation’s father, not relegating him to irrelevancy. Maybe some day enough Americans will recognize that, without George Washington, they likely wouldn’t have a nation to live in, let alone a holiday in February to appreciate. It will be great day for America if that awakening ever occurs.