Washington’s Birthday is a United States federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States. Colloquially, it is widely known as “Presidents Day” and is often an occasion to remember all the presidents, not just George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is also in February. The term “Presidents Day” was informally coined in a deliberate attempt to use the holiday to honor multiple presidents and is virtually always used that way today.
With official names including Presidents’ Day, President’s Day and Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday, the day is also a state holiday in most states. It officially celebrates, depending upon the state, Washington alone, Washington and Lincoln, or some other combination of U.S. presidents. Some states celebrate Washington and the third president Thomas Jefferson but not Lincoln. Both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays are in February. In historical rankings of Presidents of the United States Lincoln and Washington are frequently, but not always, the top two presidents.
The federal holiday honoring George Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington (20 Stat. 277) and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices (23 Stat. 516). As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places it between February 15 and 21, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” in some sense a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington’s actual birthday, either February 11 (Old Style), or February 22 (New Style).
The first attempt to create a Presidents Day occurred in 1951 when the “President’s Day National Committee” was formed by Harold Stone Bridge Fischer of Compton, California, who became its National Executive Director for the next two decades. The purpose was not to honor any particular President but to honor the office of the Presidency. It was first thought that March 4, the original inauguration day, should be deemed Presidents Day. However, the bill recognizing the March 4 date was stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which had authority over federal holidays). That committee felt that, because of its proximity to Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays, three holidays so close together would be unduly burdensome. During this time, however, the Governors of a majority of the individual states issued proclamations declaring March 4 to be Presidents’ Day in their respective jurisdictions.
An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday to “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, which would explain why the chosen date falls between the two, but this proposal failed in committee, and the bill was voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, keeping the name as Washington’s Birthday.
By the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers, the term “Presidents’ Day” began its public appearance.
In Washington’s adopted hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, celebrations are held throughout the month of February.
Wikipedia contributors, “Washington’s Birthday,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 15, 2015).
“No Business Transacted poster – 3g12934u” by Edward Penfield – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g12934. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart – link. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.