Presidents’ Day is an American federal holiday that has been around since 1885 only under a different name. Originally, it was called Washington’s Birthday in honor of George Washington and was celebrated on his birthday, February 22. The name was changed to Presidents’ Day in 1971 and moved to the third Monday of February in compliance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act so there could be more three-day weekends for workers across the nation. The holiday is still known as Washington’s Birthday within the federal government.
Washington was America’s first president and quite an iconic figure. As a way of honoring him, many places were named either after him or his home, Mount Vernon. Cities and towns across the nation added a Washington Street or Washington Park. The capital city, Washington, D.C., was named after him. Other communities, acreage and buildings were named Mount Vernon. After his death in 1799, what would have been his next birthday in 1800 became the first of a recurring time of remembrance.
Throughout the 1800s, Washington’s Birthday was celebrated unofficially. When construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848, the national celebration was still unofficial. It was not until 1879 when a senator from Arkansas, Steven Wallace Dorsey, proposed that it become a federal holiday. The measure was approved and President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the new law. It only applied to the nation’s capital, at first, but included the entire country by 1885.
In order to give federal workers more three-day weekends, Congress proposed moving some holidays to the closest Monday of their actual date. This was known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. It was the subject of debate as some congressional members felt it would cheapen the meaning of the holiday. Others saw it as a way to not only give federal employees more time off but to extend the celebrations by having more time available. The bill was passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it in 1968.
The bill went into effect in 1971 under President Richard M. Nixon. One of the provisions in the bill was to combine a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, with Washington’s Birthday, February 22. Although the new date, the third Monday of February, was still called Washington’s Birthday, it soon became known Presidents’ Day. Many states had been celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, it had never been a federal holiday.
Washington and Lincoln are considered to be two of the greatest presidents. The patriotic celebrations on Presidents’ Day include period dress fife and drum corps parades. Many historic museums will hold related events reflecting Washington’s time. The holiday has become a time to honor the accomplishments of all the presidents. Presidential libraries and museums are having special exhibits and events throughout the day. That information is available below in the “events” link.
Washington’s Birthday was the first federal holiday that honored an individual American. That would not happen again until 1983 when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was approved and signed into law. It, like Presidents’ Day, was a Monday holiday to comply with the three-day weekend as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
By: Cynthia Collins