What’s in a name: the nationally misidentified holiday


Posted Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 5:14pm

The most uncontroversial holiday in February is also the most misidentified. The history of this ordinary holiday is not its history at all, but one we have created to explain this most patriotic day. With links to famous Americans and federal involvement, “President’s Day” (or Presidents’ Day or even Presidents Day) may not be the holiday celebrated on the 21st.

To get to the truth behind President’s Day, we must start with another holiday observed only in spirit, federally. Unless you live in Alabama or one of the few other states where Washington’s Birthday is celebrated on Feb. 22, you may only know it exists by looking at a calendar. Washington’s Birthday was once the most revered American holiday barely taking second place only to the Fourth of July. The celebrated day was named a federal holiday in 1885 by President Arthur and set on Feb. 22. The day had long been celebrated by many states before 1885, but now it was official.

In 1968, legislation named the Uniform Holiday Bill was passed in order to give federal employees more three-day weekends and moved fixed holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day, along with Washington’s Birthday to Mondays and established Columbus Day. Veterans Day was eventually restored to Nov. 11, but Washington’s Birthday stayed as the third Monday in February. But wait, President’s Day is the third Monday in February! It turns out that a section of the 1968 Bill called for Washington’s Birthday to combine with Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb. 12) and be newly named “President’s Day” but it did not pass along with the rest of the bill.

Rep. William McCulloch stated, “It was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary that this [naming the day “President’s Day”] would be unwise. Certainly, not all presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country.” According to McCulloch, the political reasons for the decision are that, “There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain presidents. Moreover, it is probable that the members of one political party would not relish honoring a president from the other political party whether he was in office, no matter how outstanding history may find his leadership.”

Officially the name of the “Third-Monday-in-February Day” holiday is Washington’s Birthday and is the day we observe the birthday of “The Father of Our Country”—officially. Federal holidays are one thing, but state holidays are entirely another matter. There is no such thing as a national holiday in America, mainly because of the way the Constitution is interpreted with state’s rights and everything (this means that a state is not required to observe a holiday even if it commemorates the birth of our nation).

The 1968 Bill only changed the previously named holidays for federal government employees, not for state employees or students. When a holiday is established by the federal government, states may choose to recognize that holiday or ignore it though most states do recognize federal holidays. Some states as California, Idaho and Texas choose to observe Washington’s Birthday the way the 1968 Bill intended, but they changed the name to President’s Day. Some states choose to use President’s Day as a combination of Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday (Alabama celebrates President’s Day as the combination of George Washington’s Birthday and Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday, though Jefferson was born in April). Other states choose to keep to the original holiday schedule while some “go all out” and celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday AND President’s Day.

Whether celebrating the birthdays of one or more men who have shaped this nation or commemorating great Americans, Washington’s Birthday (federally) or President’s Day (state-wise) is a day to remember if not for its history, then for the fact it gives us a reason not to go to school or work. What will you celebrate on Monday?

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