What Exactly is the Purpose of Presidents' Day?

A look at who we celebrate and why.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Credit: morgeFile
Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Credit: morgeFile
Patch Staff Report

Monday is Presidents' Day, but what exactly is its purpose?

It's not just about weekend sales and holidays from school. There is a complex and detailed history of the holiday we know as Presidents' Day.

Depending upon which state you hail from, some Americans may remember years when both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington's birthdays were holidays. In more recent years, however, the holiday has been consolidated into a single day, celebrated on the third Monday in February.

Washington’s birthday was first officially celebrated on Feb. 22, 1880. It was one of a growing list of federal holidays authorized by Congress a year earlier. Although it originally applied only to federal workers in Washington, D.C., observance expanded to include all federal workers in 1885.

In 1971, this practice became the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act took Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day and moved them to various Mondays troughout the year from their previous date-specific observances.

Since then, United States Code designates the third Monday in February a holiday in honor of Washington’s Birthday. No federal holiday technically exists celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or Presidents Day—though New Jersey recognizes Feb. 12 as Lincoln's Birthday, and retailers recognize the holiday as Presidents' Day for the purpose of selling merchandise.

And just in case all of this wasn't complex enough, Ancestry Magazine states Washington was born on Feb. 11, 1731, not Feb. 22, 1732, under the Julian calendar in use at the time. The British Empire didn’t switch to our current Gregorian calendar until 1752.

So where did all this confusion come from? It seems to have started with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. An early draft of the bill changed Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day, but that language changed back after public outcry.

Shortly after the Act took effect, erroneous newspaper reports quoted a proclamation in which President Richard Nixon stated all presidents should be honored on the third Monday of February. But no such proclamation exists. Popular usage of the Presidents' Day moniker evolved over the years, especially in retail advertising, to replace Washington’s Birthday.

Throw in the hodgepodge of state holidays celebrating Lincoln, Washington, or both and it is easy to forget the roots of this federal holiday.

Michael February 15, 2014 at 02:49 PM
The purpose was to combine two separate holidays into one and schedule it on a Monday which would accomodate more workers easily. When I was in school we celebrated two different days, February 12th for Lincoln's birthday and February 22nd for Washington's birthday.
gdfo February 15, 2014 at 03:04 PM
yes. We had GW birthday and Lincolns birthday. Back when, in school we focused on each one on the appropriate day in History session. That was all. If anyone had a day off from work, I did not know it. Then, Valentines Day was a Saint/martyrs day of remembrance. It had nothing to do with romantic love. As children we did make gift cards and hand them out in school. That was about it. Now these events have become retailer sale days.
Michael February 15, 2014 at 03:12 PM
Exaclty. It is all about the money now.


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