By David E. Hubler
Presidents’ Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. This year Presidents’ Day will occur on Monday, February 15.
This federal holiday is unique in several ways. For one, Presidents’ Day is the only designated U.S. holiday for a group of men (so far) from George Washington to Joe Biden.
Also, some pedants might quibble about Washington’s actual birth date. As the National Archives explains: “George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731, according to the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752, however, Britain and all its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar which moved Washington’s birthday a year and 11 days to February 22, 1732.”
The Holiday Is Unique Because of the National Confusion over its Correct Punctuation
Another reason that makes the holiday unique is the national confusion over its correct punctuation: Is it Presidents Day, President’s Day or Presidents’ Day? To be grammatically correct, pedants say it should be Presidents’ Day, plural possessive, because the day celebrates all 45 U.S. chief executives. Others favor Presidents as a title rather than as a possessive.
Americans celebrated Washington’s Birthday long before Congress declared it a federal holiday. The centennial of his birth in 1831 “prompted festivities nationally and Congress established a Joint Committee to arrange for the occasion,” the Archives reports.
At the time, Washington was venerated as the most important figure in American history, and events like the 1832 centennial of his birth and the start of construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 were cause for national celebration.
Washington’s Birthday became a legal holiday on January 31, 1879, when Congress added February 22 “to the list of holidays to be observed by federal employees in the District of Columbia. The act did not stipulate that employees were to be paid for the holiday – in fact, some government employees in the District of Columbia were paid while others were not,” the Archives noted.
“In 1885, Congress resolved this discrepancy with legislation that required federal employees to be paid for all federal holidays and made federal holidays applicable to all federal government employees, including those employed outside the Washington DC area.”
Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on his birth date until 1968, “when with good intentions, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” President Richard M. Nixon signed the Act into law. By creating more three-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation,” the Archives article explained.
For years prior to the Act, as long-time residents of Washington, D.C., can attest, the holiday was celebrated with highly discounted sales across the city and suburbs.
But one of the provisions of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act changed the observance of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February, permanently moving to Monday four federal holidays — Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day.
“Ironically,” the National Archives observed, moving Washington’s birthday “guaranteed that the holiday would never be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday in February cannot fall any later than February 21.”
“That Washington’s birth date—February 22—would never fall on the third Monday in February was considered of minimum importance. After all, who could ever forget all that George Washington meant to this country?” said historian and author C. L. Arbelbide, writing for the National Archives.
But those who once waited expectantly for the special February 22 Washington’s Birthday Sales would never consider the change of date to be of “minimum importance.”
The Name of the Holiday Has Never Been Officially Changed to Presidents’ Day
Contrary to popular belief, neither Congress nor the President has ever stipulated that the name of the holiday be officially changed to Presidents’ Day. In fact, U.S. government calendars still cite the holiday as George Washington’s birthday.
Like so many things these days, the three-day weekend Presidents’ Day — no matter where the apostrophe is placed or even if there is none –was quickly adopted by merchants and auto dealerships as an extra inducement to go out and shop.
However, sadly this will be the first Presidents Day/George Washington’s Birthday holiday to fall squarely in the amidst of the nationwide coronavirus pandemic, curtailing a multitude of outdoor events and much in-person shopping.
Here’s hoping we can celebrate Presidents’ Day/George Washington’s Birthday 2022 COVID-19 disease free.