The History of Presidents’ Day

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Podcast Transcript

The third Monday of February every year in the United States is a holiday that most people know as Presidents’ Day. 

It is not the most glamorous holiday, and most people actually forget that it exists until they wonder why they didn’t get any mail.

While the day itself isn’t really one that is celebrated, the story behind the day is much more fascinating than most people realize.

Learn more about Presidents’ Day, the oddest and most confusing American holiday, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you do not live in the United States and are unaware of Presidents’ Day, I don’t blame you.

If you live in the United States and are unaware of Presidents’ Day, I don’t blame you.

If you have heard of Presidents’ Day, there is a good chance much of what you know about it is wrong. That is because Presidents’ Day doesn’t actually exist…..sort of. 

Understanding why requires an understanding of Federal Law, the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and punctuation.

I’ll begin with American Federal Holidays themselves. 

Prior to 1870, there were no official federal holidays. Yes, people celebrated Christmas and the Fourth of July, and the President would declare a day of Thanksgiving in November, but there was nothing official about these days. 

The initial legislation in 1870 only recognized four official holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Even then, these first federal holidays only applied to federal employees within the District of Columbia. Federal holidays weren’t extended to all federal employees until 1885. 

In 1879, Congress added a fifth holiday to the list, and for the purposes of this episode is the one we care about, George Washington’s Birthday on February 22.

The idea of celebrating the birthday of Washington harkens to monarchies, where the birthday of the monarch is often a national holiday. As the United States doesn’t have a monarch, the idea was to honor the first president and man who is often given the title of “Father of the Country.”

This is where we run into our first problem. What exactly was Washington’s birthday? 

If you could travel back in time and witness the birth of George Washington and look at the calendar, the date would not be February 22. The date that would have been registered on his birth certificate would have been February 11, 1731. 

If he was born on February 11, why was February 22 celebrated as the day of Washington’s birth?

It was because, in 1752, Great Britain switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar. 

Due to the small errors which accumulated over time, by the year 1750, the calendar was 11 days off from what the date should have been using a solar year. 

When the British changed over their calendar, it went directly from Wednesday, September 2, to Thursday, September 14, 1752. This change also applied to the American Colonies. 

On top of that, if you remember back to my episode on why we use January 1 as the start of the New Year, the English used to start the new year on March 25. The change in the calendar also resulted in a change in the start of the new year. 

As Washington was born in February, it meant that in the Gregorian calendar, not only the date of his birth changed, but the year as well. 

This caused an enormous amount of confusion for everyone who was born under the old calendar. 

Washington, during his lifetime, went along with the new calendar and retconned his birthday to the new date. Instead of being born on February 11, 1731, he was now born on February 22, 1732. 

So, that rather awkward explanation is why George Washington’s birthday is on February 22. 

February 22 was the day celebrated as Washington’s Birthday federal holiday for almost 100 years. 

In 1968, congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This took several holidays, in particular Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, and moved them all to a particular Monday on the calendar to create a three-day weekend.  Since then, several other new federal holidays have also been scheduled on Mondays. 

In the case of Washington’s Birthday, the day selected was the third Monday in February. This means that Washington’s Birthday can take place between February 15 and February 21. The federal holiday never takes place on Washington’s actual birthday anymore.

Washington’s Birthday wasn’t the only presidential birthday that was celebrated. Many people also celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12. 

Lincoln’s Birthday, despite often being put on the calendar, was never an official federal holiday. 

Because Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays were so close to each other, many people began to just lump them together and celebrate them both on Washington’s Birthday, which was the actual federal holiday. 

People began informally calling it Presidents’ Day. 

The first attempts to formally change the holiday to Presidents’ Day date back to 1951. 

One of the ideas which was floated was to move the date of Preisdents’ Day to March 4, which was the date when presidents used to be inaugurated before the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

However, and this what many Americans don’t realize is that there is no federal holiday known as Presidents’ Day. The name of the holiday is and always has been since 1879, George Washinton’s Birthday. 

So when I said that the top of the episode that Presidents’ Day didn’t exist, it does not exist as a federal holiday. 

However, I also said it sort of exists, and it does sort of exist. 

The next thing you have to know is that federal holidays do not extend to anything beyond federal employees and federal agencies. That’s it. 

Banks, the stock market, and schools are not required to close on any Federal Holiday as they are not federal agencies. If they choose to do so, they do so as a courtesy, but federal holidays have no jurisdiction over anything other than federal employees. 

That includes Christmas, New Year’s Day, and everything else. 

That being said, states can proclaim their own state holidays, and most states overlap their state holidays with federal holidays. 

In the case of George Washinton’s Birthday, it gets really weird. 

As I mentioned, Presidents’ Day does sort of exist….at the state level….in some states. 

The big question is, how do you spell Presidents’?  It is s-apostrophe, which would indicate a day for all presidents? Is it apostrophe-s, which would imply the day of the president? Or is it without an apostrophe, which would make it consistent with days such as Veterans Day? 

The answer is…..yes. 

All three versions of the spelling are official holidays in several states. 

Presidents’ Day, with s-apostrophe, is an official holiday in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. 

This is the most popular variant by far. 

President’s Day, apostrophe-s, is an official holiday in Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Presidents Day, with no apostrophe, is a holiday in Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon. In the case without an apostrophe, “presidents” is considered to be an attributive noun, which acts as a modifier, not a plural. 

If that isn’t confusing enough, it doesn’t end there. 

Maine and South Carolina call it Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day, using apostrophe-s.

Arizona calls it Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day, using an s-apostrophe.

Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York recognize the Federal naming convention of George Washington’s Birthday. 

Virginia, Washington’s home state, just calls it George Washington Day.

Montana, Colorado, Ohio, Utah, and Minnesota celebrate some variations of Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays.

Alabama calls it George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday….even though Jefferson was born in April. 

Arkansas calls it George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Bates Day. Daisy Bates is a civil rights activist…who was born on November 11.

But wait, there’s more. 

Massachusetts celebrates Washington’s Birthday like everyone else but then has its own Presidents’ Day on May 29, John F. Kennedy’s birthday, which honors all the presidents who have ties to the state. 

In New Mexico, Presidents’ Day is celebrated the day after Thanksgiving in November.

In Georgia, they do observe Washington’s Birthday, but they do so….on the day after Christmas. 

Nine states have no holidays at all for either Washington, Lincoln, or any presidents: Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

New Mexico and Georgia clearly just stuck the holiday on days when people weren’t going to be working anyhow. 

Arkansas and Alabama just attached other people to the day to reduce the number of holidays. 

There isn’t much in the way of celebrations tied to Washington’s Birthday or Presidents’ Day.

The day is in the middle of winter, so there aren’t many picnics or parades. There are a few communities around the country that commemorate the day, but that’s about it.

For most people, it is a day off of work or a day when your mail doesn’t get delivered. There will usually be Presidents’ Day sales at various stores because more people than usual will be available to go shopping. 

The closest thing to an actual tradition surrounding the day is that every year since 1862, a member of the United States Senate is selected to read on the senate floor the full text of Washington’s Farewell Address. 

The selected senator alternates political parties every year, and it is usually broadcast on C-SPAN…..or C-SPAN-2…..or more realistically, C-SPAN-3

In 2012, a poll conducted by Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes found that 35% of Americans would be fine getting rid of the holiday altogether. Most wouldn’t want it officially changed to Presidents Day either because it would then be seen to honor bad presidents. 

That being said, no one really wants to get rid of a day off work, and no politician will want to be seen disrespecting George Washington or the collective mass of presidents, so the day probably not going anywhere. 

So, as you can see,  Presidents Day or George Washington’s Birthday, or whatever you wish to call it, is far more complex and confusing than most people realize. 

So, to all the Presidents out there listening, Happy Presidents Day….except for the fact that the day doesn’t really exist, except for where it does exist, even though there is no convention on spelling,  naming, or even dates.