Monday, Feb. 19, has come and gone, and with it, the 138th official celebration of Presidents’ Day. We might all remember Presidents’ Day in elementary school— learning about George Washington, with his wooden teeth and cherry tree-felling abilities, but the truth is that the actual meaning and history of the historical holiday is rather convoluted.
Presidents’ Day was originally a celebration of George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22. Following his death in the December of 1799, Washington’s birthday became a day of remembrance. The beloved president was celebrated in many ways, including the 1832 centennial of his birth and the construction of the Washington Monument in 1848. Although the holiday was initially in celebration of the first United States president and took place on his birthday every year, it became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved to the third Monday of February. This movement was a part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for United States workers. This Act was proposed by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois, who wanted to shift the celebration of federal holidays from a specific numerical date to a predetermined Monday to give workers more time off and to reduce absenteeism. This change was encouraged by the private sector and was seen as a guaranteed way to bolster retail sales. Holidays such as Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans’ Day were also moved from their originally-designated dates, although Veterans’ Day was returned to its original date after widespread criticism.
Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas was the first to propose that Washington’s birthday be a federal holiday in the late 1870s, and president Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law in 1879. The holiday first applied to D.C., and then was expanded to the entire country in 1885. At the time, Washington’s birthday was the fifth nationally-recognized federal bank holiday, and the first holiday that celebrated the life of an individual American, with Martin Luther King Jr. Day becoming the second in 1983.
The move away from February 22 led much of the general public to believe that the new date was intended to honor both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as it fell between their two birthdays. As predicted by the enthusiasm from the retail sector, marketers soon began utilizing the three-day weekend as a sales opportunity, and the “Presidents’ Day” bargains began.
Presidents’ Day is now viewed as a celebration of United States past and present presidents in general, although several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of specific presidents. Now, Presidents’ Day never falls on the actual birthday of any United States president. Although many presidents were born in February, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison, and Ronald Reagan, their birthdays either come too early or too late in the month to coincide with the set date on the third Monday of the month.
Some states use this holiday to focus on other historical figures specific to their individual histories. For example, Arkansas uses Presidents’ Day to celebrate Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates, while Alabama uses the holiday to commemorate Washington as well as Thomas Jefferson. The methods of celebrating Presidents’ Day have varied in general throughout the past century, with the holiday taking on special significance during the economic trials of the Great Depression. At this time, George Washington was often featured on the front of newspapers and magazines. In 1932, Presidents’ Day was used to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military award created by Washington to honor soldiers who were killed or wounded while serving in the armed forces. Various organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, hold special celebrations on the day, and 5,000 people attended a special mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in honor of Washington in 1938.
Today, Presidents’ Day is used by many different patriotic or historical groups to stage celebrations, reenactments, and other events. Certain states require that public schools spend the week leading up to Presidents’ Day learning about the accomplishments and contributions of the presidents, mainly Washington and Lincoln.
Presidents’ Day is certainly a unique holiday, given the fact that there is no national agreement on the name of the holiday (Washington’s Birthday? Presidents’ Day? February 22?!), there is no national agreement on which presidents are being honored, and there is not even agreement on where the apostrophe goes, or if there should be an apostrophe!
Despite this lack of consensus, we can certainly agree that in this tumultuous political climate, where people celebrated “Not My President’s Day” on Feb. 20, 2017 to protest the current U.S. president, there is something vital in taking a step back to reflect on the historical leaders who we all remember with respect and honor, as well as the presidential characteristics that result in such respect.
Sources: History.com, Daily Mail, the Almanac, USA Today, the Washington Post