The History of Presidents’ Day

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President’s Day was created by an act of Congress in 1879 to honor George Washington on his birthday, which was February 22nd. Today, we observe Presidents’ Day on the third Monday of February each year as a way to acknowledge not just Washington’s Birthday, but Abraham Lincoln’s, as well. Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th, has never been a federal holiday, though it has traditionally been noted on calendars as a day of observance. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the holiday came to be known as “Presidents’ Day”, rather than “Washington’s Birthday”, which actually was because of a push from advertisers to broaden the reach of the holiday.

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President George Washington

Every state mentions Washington somehow in its naming and observance of the holiday, but each state has the option to choose how and which other presidents it honors. Some states opt not to acknowledge Lincoln’s birthday. In Alabama, Washington and Jefferson days (for Thomas Jefferson) are celebrated.

There are still states, such as Connecticut, Missouri and Illinois, that maintain Lincoln’s birthday observance on February 12th in addition to the federal Washington’s Birthday observance. Massachusetts celebrates Washington’s Birthday on the same day as the federal observance, but it also observes its own “Presidents Day” on May 29th to honor those presidents from Massachusetts. Especially in the south, Presidents’ Day is a time to show pride, and they still do so by flying civil war flags, specifically around this observance.

One of the reasons why the holiday was moved from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February was purely practical: It was part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971, which was designed to create more three-day weekends for the work force. At that time, Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day were also moved to Mondays from their traditional dates, though Veterans’ Day was subsequently moved back to be permanently on November 11th. While Presidents’ Day has become a retailer’s dream — signaling deals on cars, electronics, clothes and other goodies, it used to be a day when malls and stores were typically closed for observance of the holiday. Nowadays, the American flag is ubiquitous, but sometimes to show that a retailer has a big sale going on, rather than as a demonstration of patriotism.

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President Abraham Lincoln

When the holiday was moved to a Monday, it was still called “Washington’s Birthday”, and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that about half of the states had changed the name to Presidents’ Day on their official calendars. It was originally supposed that the move to a Monday, rather than remaining on the 22nd, was intended in order to honor both Washington and Lincoln, but whether that’s actually the case is unknown. Here’s a fun fact, though: Although Washington, William Henry Harrison, Lincoln and Ronald Reagan all had birthdays in February, each of their birthdays was either too early or too late to ever coincide with Presidents’ Day.

Like other patriotic holidays like Independence Day and Labor Day, lots of historical groups and schools use Presidents’ Day as a vehicle for education about presidents’ accomplishments and the history they’ve created. Although the observance started with Washington and grew to involve Lincoln, it has come to be accepted as a holiday that’s for celebrating all presidents. And, different states and cities have different ways of showing their gratitude and appreciation. For example, since 1923, Alexandria, Va. has hosted an annual George Washington Birthday Parade with bands, floats, historic reenactments and so on, along with free admission to many historic sites.

Regardless of whether you’re spending this Presidents’ Day shopping, spending time with family and friends, or going on a vacation, take a moment to reflect on the real reason why the holiday exists. Enjoy!

Mike is a Vietnam-era veteran, history buff, and vexillology fanatic. He’s also the founder and CEO of Gettysburg Flag Works, a company that specializes in the sale of flags, flagpoles, and banners. He enjoys helping his customers show pride in their country, nationality, organization, business or any other aspect of their lives.

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