The Surprising Truth About Presidents' Day

  • February 16, 2017
  • Jenna Maxwell

This coming Monday, February 20th is Presidents' Day . . . or is it? One look at your calendar and it's very easy to verify the existence of the upcoming holiday that gives many of us a wonderful winter three-day weekend. What you may not realize, however, is that there is a bit of confusion about the specifics of Presidents' Day. The truth is, Presidents' Day may not be the holiday you think it is at all. To get to the bottom of all the confusion, we must first go back into history.

Celebrating George Washington's birthday is a great American tradition that is as old as America. In fact, the first birthday festivities held for George Washington happened during the late 18th century while he was still acting as President of the United States. There is little doubt why folks would want to honor the first President and his incredible legacy, which is why this great tradition continues into our modern day. Thus, it makes sense that in 1885, President Chester Arthur signed a bill that made celebrating February 22, Washington's Birthday, a federal holiday.

Meanwhile, many folks felt that Abraham Lincoln's birthday (February 12) also should be recognized and deserved some attention. Although Lincoln's birthday never became a federal holiday, many states went ahead and celebrated it on their own. So what caused the Presidents' holiday confusion? It all seems to have started with Congress and something called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

In 1968, Congress signed into law an act that would change the official dates of certain federal holidays. The purpose of the revised federal code was to ensure that certain holidays would always occur on a Monday, which tacked the holidays onto a weekend, creating three-day long weekends for each of these celebrations. Beginning in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act changed Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day holidays all to an expressly indicated Monday.

At the time of the implementation of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, there was also a movement to change the name of the George Washington's birthday holiday to "Presidents' Day" to simultaneously honor both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Congress rejected the change, but interestingly enough, the movement to cause the name change received so much publicity that even though it never became legal or an official change, the name "Presidents' Day" stuck. Additionally, because the new official Monday given to mark Washington's Birthday holiday is the third Monday in February, it will always fall in between Lincoln's and Washington's Birthday. This timing only reinforced the false notion that the holiday should honor both former presidents, Washington and Lincoln. The strange truth about Presidents' Day is that technically, there is no Presidents' Day. The Federal holiday that is celebrated on the third Monday in February is George Washington's Birthday, and sadly, there is no national holiday set aside to recognize the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

So, it seems that depending on how you look at it, either the Father of Our Country or Honest Abe may be getting a little short changed. There are plenty of folks that firmly believe that Lincoln truly deserves his holiday and others feel that using the term, "Presidents' Day" takes something away from the great legacy of George Washington. The reality is, however, that even though this important holiday may technically be "George Washington's Birthday," most workplaces, schools, calendars, advertisers, and even many government agencies still use the term, "Presidents' Day."

No matter how you celebrate your upcoming three-day weekend or what you choose to call it, Presidents' Day is a spectacular time to reflect on some of the many accomplishments of these two very influential past Presidents and how these great men impacted the many freedoms we enjoy in our country today.