For many, particularly federal workers, today means a day off because it’s Presidents’ Day.
Plans are in place for a long weekend of travel, binge-watching TV, maybe sleeping in today, and for those in New Orleans, sleeping off the fun from the first weekend of Carnival parades.
But what exactly is Presidents’ Day? Glad you asked.
1. He Never Told a Lie (Supposedly)
The inspiration for this day off is America’s first president, George Washington.
When Washington passed away in 1799, he was considered such an important figure in U.S. history that his birthday—Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732—became a perennial day of remembrance, starting in 1800. The holiday was called Washington’s Birthday.
2. When Did Presidents’ Day Become Official?
Washington’s Birthday wasn’t truly an official holiday until Jan. 31, 1879, when President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law, though it only applied to federal employees in the District of Columbia.
It took until 1885 for it to become celebrated by the whole country.
3. When Did Washington’s Birthday Change Its Name to Presidents’ Day?
Good question with no real definitive answer. The U.S. Congress and no actual President has ever required the name change from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.
The blog by George Washington’s Mount Vernon (the house he lived in that is now a museum) said that Presidents’ Day was proposed as a Monday holiday in 1951, but nothing happened.
What the site surmises is that the ubiquitous Presidents’ Day commercials and advertisements for sales caused the public to adopt the holiday name.
It was also seen as a good way to honor all the country’s presidents, rather than just one.
4. Why Isn’t It Celebrated on Washington’s Actual Birthday?
It wasn’t until June 28, 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was to provide a uniform annual observance of legal public holidays on Monday.
You can thank Sen. Robert McClory of Illinois, who championed the bill, which proposed to shift federal holidays, so they could be three-day weekends. By creating more three-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”
This is why you have certain federal holidays on Monday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day (also observed as Columbus Day), Memorial Day, and Labor Day.
The irony of this change to Presidents’ Day is that it guarantees the holiday won’t be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday cannot fall any later than Feb. 21.
5. What Does President Abraham Lincoln Have To Do With This?
Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, and somehow his birthday was linked with the Washington’s Birthday holiday. In some places in the United States, Lincoln’s Birthday was celebrated on its own. (Some schools had the winter holiday between Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays.)
Merging the two holidays was also a provision in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
Though the fact remains, what other president could advertisers use with Washington other than “Honest Abe”?
Lagniappe: What Is Closed on Presidents’ Day?
Federal offices, no mail is delivered, and most banks are closed, as are the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.
Of course, major stores will be open.
By Sue Strachan