As we hit the middle of February, we see stressed-out students and tired staff looking forward to the only state holiday this month (perhaps in the future Valentine’s Day will be a true holiday, instead of simply the worst restaurant day in America and sale for half of chocolates and confectioneries). Of course, I am talking about President’s Day (famous for being a pretty easy restaurant day and marks a weekend of half off used cars and mattresses).
Why do we celebrate President’s Day though, and why in February?
The origin of the holiday comes from the first president himself, George Washington. His birthday was on February 22nd and was celebrated for years with strong patriotic tendencies before it was recognized by the U.S. Government. “Washington’s Birthday” was officially signed in as an official holiday, in 1879 by President Rutherford B. Hayes, after being suggested by Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey. This would originally only affect Washington D.C. until 1885, when President Chester Alan Arthur made it the fifth official banking holiday (the others being Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years Day and the Fourth of July).
Now you may think, while spying on your calendar, that this year’s President’s Day falls on the 19th. As a matter of fact, Presidents Day only comes on the third Monday of every February which would mean that President’s Day would never fall on the 22nd again! (To which I would say, that you are very astute at using a calendar).
The date for the holiday was already in contention due to its proximity to President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday of February 12th, which was celebrated regionally at the time. The two were merged together and the celebration placed on the third Monday by The Uniform Monday Holiday Act (yes, that is it’s real name.) This bill, put forward by Illinois Senator Robert McClory, this Act would organize the new federal holidays of Presidents Day, Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day to be on Mondays so that federal employees and any others with time off would have three-day weekends (though due to public outcry, Veterans Day would be later moved back to November 11th). This act was passed in 1968 and would be put into effect under President Richard Nixon in 1971 (though not actually said by President Nixon himself, a newspaper spoof had falsely credited him the quote, “[Presidents Day is a] holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.”) This act also became the start of Presidents Day being the more common term over Washington’s Birthday.
However, many places still hold some residual regional differences over Presidents Day. For instance Alabama (whose lawmakers are perhaps not as astute with their calendar) celebrate President Thomas Jefferson as well, despite his birthday falling in April.
But no matter who’s chronologically misplaced birthday you want to celebrate, Presidents Day has been a historically interesting and overlooked holiday. This year, let us remember that history as we wait in line for half off linens and down quilts.