Presidents’ Day, also known as Washington’s Birthday at the federal level, is a federal holiday observed in the United States on the third Monday in February to honor all individuals who have served as presidents of the country. George Washington has been the subject of this holiday since 1879 because he presided over the 1787 Constitutional Convention, led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War, and was the nation’s first president.
Most states recognize this day as a state holiday, and it is also known as Presidents’ Day, Presidents’ Day, Washington and Lincoln’s Birthday, and Presidents’ Day. There are 15 names used for the various states. The state holiday may officially honor Washington alone, Washington and Lincoln, or another group of American presidents, depending on the relevant law (such as Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was born in April).
From 1879 to 1970, February 22 was designated as Washington’s Birthday. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, passed in 1968, relocated the holiday to the third Monday in February, which can fall between February 15 and February 21. This gave government workers a three-day weekend. The day quickly gained the name Presidents (‘) Day (the placement of the apostrophe, if any, varies) and offers a chance to recognize all U.S. presidents or to jointly celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
States and communities that had been honoring Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 integrated the two holidays into Presidents Day as they did the same. Lincoln oversaw the country’s participation in the American Civil War, helped to keep the Union together, abolitionized slavery, strengthen the federal government, and modernize the American economy.
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The Official Holidays.
Although February 12th, the day of Lincoln’s birthday, was never declared a federal holiday, approximately half of the state governments have changed the name of their celebrations to “Presidents’ Day,” “Washington and Lincoln Day,” or other similar names. Lincoln and Washington are frequently ranked as the top two presidents of the United States in historical rankings.
A number of states have declared state holidays in their honor that doesn’t coincide with the third Monday in February.
On the same day as the federal holiday, Massachusetts officially observes “Washington’s Birthday.” In accordance with state law, the governor is required to proclaim “Presidents Day” every year on May 29—John F. Kennedy’s birthday—to recognize the contributions of Kennedy, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Calvin Coolidge, the four presidents having Massachusetts roots.
While Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday in California, Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is still observed as a state holiday on February 12 regardless of the day of the week.
Presidents’ Day is honored in New Mexico on the Friday after Thanksgiving, at least as a state-paid holiday; nonetheless, the third Monday in February continues to be the official public holiday.
Washington’s Birthday is not a paid state holiday in Georgia, despite the fact that, up until 2018, it was honored on Christmas Eve.
Similarly, Indiana celebrates Lincoln’s birthday the day after Thanksgiving while Washington’s birthday is marked on Christmas Eve, or the day before the holiday if Christmas occurs on a Saturday or Sunday.
The Related History.
On February 11, 1731 (Old Style), George Washington was born at his parents’ Pope’s Creek Estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia, which is now the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. The whole British Empire, including its conquests in North America, was using the Julian calendar at the time; because it was not affiliated with the Catholic Church, it had not yet switched to the contemporary Gregorian calendar that Catholic nations had adopted in 1582.
Due to leap year variations, the Julian calendar used by Britain and the Colonies was, by the 1730s, eleven days behind the Gregorian calendar. Additionally, because the British civil year began on March 25 rather than January 1, dates in February (like this one) technically “belonged” to the year prior.
Since the British Empire adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, Washington and other Americans born before that year have traditionally had their birthdays celebrated under the Gregorian calendar (“New Style” dates). Washington changed his birth date to February 22, 1732, to correspond with the new calendar, since February 11, 1731, on the Julian calendar, was February 22, 1732, on the Gregorian, and he was present when the change was made.
An Act of Congress established the federal holiday in honor of Washington in 1879 for federal offices in Washington, and it was later extended to all federal offices in 1885. The holiday, which was observed on February 22, coincided with Washington’s birthday according to the Gregorian calendar and was the first official holiday to honor an American president.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into effect on January 1, 1971, moved the federal holiday to the third Monday in February. This sets “Washington’s Birthday” between February 15 and 21, which is a bit of a misnomer as it never happens on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22.
The “President’s Day National Committee” was established in 1951 by Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California, who served as the organization’s National Executive Director for the following 20 years. This was the first attempt to establish a Presidents Day. The goal was to commemorate the presidency rather than any one particular president.
Presidents Day was originally intended to be observed on March 4, the day of the first inauguration, but the legislation establishing that date was blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee (which had authority over federal holidays). The group believed that having three holidays so close together would be excessively taxing considering their proximity to Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays. The majority of state governors, however, issued proclamations in the meantime designating March 4 as Presidents’ Day in their respective states.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act originally called for renaming the holiday “Presidents’ Day” to honor both Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays, which would explain why the holiday was chosen to fall between their birthdays. However, this proposal was rejected by the committee, and the bill was ultimately passed and became law on June 28, 1968, keeping the name “Washington’s Birthday.”
With the help of marketers, the name “Presidents’ Day” had its public debut in the middle of the 1980s.
Celebrations take place all throughout February in Alexandria, Virginia, which has become Washington’s adopted hometown.