Why Do We Celebrate President's Day?

The holiday's official name is Washington's Birthday

USA, New York City, Washington Square Park, George Washington monument with American flag in background
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President's Day was established in 1832 to celebrate George Washington's centennial. The annual holiday, which now falls on the third Monday of February, later evolved into a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday as well, and eventually turned into a day to mark the birthdays and lives of all American presidents—although the holiday's name was never officially changed to President's Day.

Did You Know?

  • George Washington's birthday got changed from February 11, 1731, to February 22, 1732, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. An act of Congress made the date a federal holiday.
  • Thanks to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Washington's Birthday—which is often called Presidents' Day—is always celebrated on the third Monday in February.
  • Retailers love Presidents' Day, and use it as a time to put big-ticket items on sale—because that's when people start getting their income tax refunds back.

The First Presidents' Day

The origins of Presidents' Day date back to the early nineteenth century, and it all started with George Washington. The first American president was born on February 11, 1731. As the centennial anniversary of his birth approached, Congress announced that festivities in Washington's honor would be held on February 22, 1832. Why the change in dates?

The answer lies in the history of the modern calendar. Washington's birth took place before 1752, which was the year that Britain and all of its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar. Thus, Washington's birthday now fell on February 22, 1732, which meant that a century later, in 1832—instead of 1831—it was time to celebrate. Festivities took place all over the country, including the early adjournment of the Congressional session, followed by the reading of Washington's 1796 Farewell Address, which has become an annual tradition.

In 1879, Congress passed a bill declaring that February 22, long celebrated as Washington's birthday, would be designated a federal holiday. At that time, Congress added February 22 to the list of official holidays observed by federal employees in the District of Columbia.

This presented a problem initially, though—some government employees were paid for the day off, but others weren't. In 1885, Congress solved that issue by declaring that all federal employees, including those employed outside of Washington D.C., were to be paid for all federal holidays.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved a number of federal holidays to Mondays. This change was adopted so that workers would have several three-day weekends throughout each year, but there was opposition from people who felt that holidays should be observed on the days they actually celebrate.

According to historian C.L. Arbelbide, the Congressional Record highlighted three primary benefits of this change, aimed specifically at families:

  • "Three-day holidays offer greater opportunities for families—especially those whose members may be widely separated—to get together. . . ."
  • "The three-day span of leisure time . . . would allow our citizens greater participation in their hobbies as well as in educational and cultural activities."
  • "Monday holidays would improve commercial and industrial production by minimizing midweek holiday interruptions of production schedules and reducing employee absenteeism before and after midweek holidays."

The Uniform Holiday Act went into effect in January, 1971, and declared "Washington's Birthday, the third Monday in February," as a legal public holiday.

During discussion about the new act, it was suggested that Washington’s Birthday should be renamed Presidents' Day in order to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, 1809. However, Congress rejected the name alteration and it was never officially changed. So, why do people still call it Presidents' Day?

The Meaning of Presidents' Day Today

You can thank your friendly neighborhood retailer for the use of the term Presidents' Day. It's become one of the most popular times of year for sales. While this might seem like an odd season to decide you need to run out and buy a new mattress or a dresser, there's actually a reason behind the tradition of Presidents' Day sales on big-ticket items: it's when people are starting to get their income tax refunds.

Although there have been attempts over the years to formally start calling Washington's Birthday by its more common name of Presidents' Day, it's never happened. In addition, states have the power to call it Presidents' Day if they wish—the use of the name Washington's Birthday is found at a federal level. No matter what you choose to call it, if you're a federal government employee, you'll get the third Monday in February off each year.

Sources

  • Arbelbide, C L. “By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday!” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/winter/gw-birthday-1.html.
  • “George Washington's Birthday.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/legislative/features/washington.
  • Hornick, Ed. “What You May Not Know about Presidents Day.” CNN, Cable News Network, 18 Feb. 2019, www.cnn.com/2016/02/15/politics/presidents-day-history-washington-birthday/index.html.
  • “Public Law 90-363 .” US Government Publishing Office, 27 Jan. 1968, www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-82/pdf/STATUTE-82-Pg250-3.pdf.