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What would George think?

by Becky C | Feb 20, 2017
Lansdowne portrait of George WashingtonWhile many calendars and advertisements identify the third Monday in February as Presidents' Day, the official name of the federal holiday is Washington's Birthday.  The name of the federal holiday indicates that we are celebrating the birth of George Washington, but the name most of us are familiar with implies that we are celebrating other presidents as well.  Which is it?

As it turns out, the history of this holiday has a few twists and turns.  It originally began as a day of remembrance of George Washington.  Washington was much admired; following his death in 1779, his birthday became a day of commemoration.  February 22 was signed into law as a federal holiday in 1879 by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  Initially, the holiday only applied to the District of Columbia but was expanded to include the entire United States in 1885. 
 
February 22?  Yes, until 1971, the Father of Our Country's birthday was, in fact, celebrated on his birthday.  In the late 1960s however, there was a push to create more three-day weekends for federal workers.  And, by that time, America had another widely admired President many wanted to celebrate as well:  Abraham Lincoln, also born in February.

While working out the details of the holiday bill, the committee discussed whether the name of the Washington's Birthday should be changed to Presidents' Day but ultimately decided against it.  However, the decision to place the observance on the third Monday of the month, also placed it between Lincoln's birthday and Washington's.  It was the beginning of the shift in public perception. 

With the implementation of the Monday Holiday Law in 1971, people began thinking of the third Monday in February as a combined celebration of both Washington and Lincoln.  And, despite the fact that the name of the federal holiday never changed, by the mid-1980s, Presidents' Day had become the more widely used title.  Today, this holiday is popularly regarded as a day to celebrate all United States presidents, past and present.

That's not all, folks!  I discovered a few more interesting facts while researching this post.

  • You know how I stated earlier that George Washington was born on February 22?  It's a bit more complicated than that.  When he was born, people in Great Britain and the Colonies were still using the Julian calendar ; according to that calendar, he was born on February 11.  
  • The Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752.  People born before 1752 were instructed to add 11 days to their birth dates and those who were born between January 1 and March 25, as Washington was, also had to add one year to be properly in sync with the new calendar.  Ouch.
  • Indiana, among a few other states, likes to celebrate Washington's birthday in December.  ???  Kevin Bleyer asserts that we do this to observe Washington's Birthday without creating another paid holiday. 
  • Make sure you click on "the Father of Our Country'".  It will take you to a fun list of Presidential nicknames.  

My guess is that George would be perfectly happy to share this holiday with the other presidents of our country, particularly if it encouraged us to get to know each of them better.  With that in mind, here are three well-reviewed titles to get you started.  Happy Presidents' Day!

The Presidents and the Constitution
Historical Dictionary of the US Presidency
 
 Where They Stand





 
Becky CBecky likes to read … A LOT. When she’s not reading, she likes to pretend that she can garden. Her thumb has no hint of green whatsoever but luckily her plants are forgiving. Her favorite books are The Shannara series by Terry Brooks.

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