A Brief History of Presidents Day

Presidents Day falls on Monday, Feb. 16, in 2015. Although it’s a federal holiday, many businesses don’t close (the WSBA offices will be closed in observance) — and for some, the only celebration of the holiday consists of shopping for bargains at Presidents Day Weekend sales. So let’s learn a little more about this relatively obscure holiday.

First things first: we can’t even agree on how to spell it. You’ll frequently see typographical variants such as “President’s Day,” “Presidents Day,” and “Presidents’ Day.” To be fair, though, this partly reflects which president(s) a state is honoring – more on that in a minute. (For the record, we follow AP style and call it “Presidents Day.”)

Officially, the holiday is Washington’s Birthday, celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first U.S. president. The holiday was created by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices. Originally, it was held on Feb. 22, Washington’s actual birthday, but later shifted to its present date under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an effort to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s grateful workers. This means it falls between Feb. 15-21 on the calendar. So, ironically, the holiday officially known as Washington’s Birthday never actually occurs on Washington’s birthday.

After the holiday moved to the third Monday in February, it became popularly known as Presidents Day and the focus expanded to include other presidents. It’s also known as “George Washington Day” in Virginia, “Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday” in Montana (both presidents have February birthdays), and “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, among other aliases. So you are at liberty to celebrate the president(s) of your choice this coming Monday.

If you’d like to hit the road in observance of Presidents Day, don’t miss this guide to historical national parks that honor some of our nation’s greatest leaders. Or you can celebrate at home with some presidential cuisine and historical reading on Washington’s life. But skip the cherry pie — sadly, the famous “I cannot tell a lie” cherry tree legend is fictional.

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Presidents Day

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