I see by my calendar that February 20th is Presidents Day. Now, as I recall, there was no such holiday when I was growing up. There were two United States presidents that we honored in February—Abraham Lincoln whose birthday was on February 12th and George Washington, born on the 22nd. So, being curious, I decided to look into why the calendar shows us celebrating Presidents Day on a date that is neither Washington’s nor Lincoln’s birthday.
In 1879 the U.S. Congress made President Washington’s birthday a holiday. Up until then there had been just four federal holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. I found an old poster from 1890 declaring February 22nd, Washington’s Birthday, a legal holiday, printed with the words “No Business Transacted” much as Sundays used to be observed back in the day.
In 1968, the Uniform Holidays Act moved the date of the commemoration to the third Monday in February (which can fall anywhere between February 15th and the 21st, meaning the observed holiday never falls on Washington’s actual birthday). Because of this and the fact that President Lincoln’s birthday falls on February 12, many people now refer to Washington’s Birthday as “Presidents Day” and consider it a day honoring all American presidents. However, neither the Uniform Holidays Act nor any other law changed the name of the holiday to Presidents Day.
The federal holiday “Washington’s Birthday” honors the accomplishments of the man known as “The Father of his Country” who was celebrated for his leadership in the founding of the nation. He was the Electoral College’s unanimous choice to become the first President; seen as a unifying force for the new republic and an example for future holders of the office.
As for Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president who saw our nation through the Civil War and the end of slavery, his birthday never was a federal holiday but is a legal, public holiday in some U.S. states—including Indiana (“Lincoln’s Boyhood Home”). Originally observed on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1809, in Indiana, Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays are today observed much later in the year to give state workers longer holidays during the early winter holiday season: Washington’s Birthday is observed on Christmas Eve, or the day preceding the weekend if Christmas falls on Saturday or Sunday; while Lincoln’s Birthday is the day after Thanksgiving. The Wayne Township Trustee Office keeps these holidays on those days. We are not closed any weekdays in February but instead observe these birthdays near the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays.
Today, the February holiday has become well known for being a day in which many stores, especially car dealers, hold sales. Until the late 1980s, corporate businesses generally closed on this day, similar to present corporate practices on Memorial Day or Christmas Day. With the late 1980s advertising push to rename the holiday, more and more businesses are staying open on the holiday each year, and, as on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day, most delivery services outside of the U.S. Postal Service now offer regular service on the day as well. Some public transit systems have also gone to regular schedules on the day. Many colleges and universities hold regular classes and operations on Presidents Day. Many who have studied the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill debate of 1968 in the Congressional Record have noted that supporters of the Bill were intent on moving federal holidays to Mondays to promote business.
So despite what the calendar says, there is, in fact, not a federal holiday called Presidents Day, but throughout this month of February I’ll be feeling pretty patriotic thinking about Washington, Lincoln, and other great leaders of our country. For those of you who get the day off—Happy Shopping.
Latest posts by Richard A. Stevenson - Wayne Township Trustee (see all)
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