Every year on the third Monday in February, a holiday commonly known as Presidents’ Day is celebrated across the country. What has become a day to honor all United States presidents, was not always so. Presidents’ Day has its origins in the celebration of the birthdays of two U.S. Presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Following President George Washington’s death in 1799, his February 22 birthday became an annual day of remembrance. At the time, Washington was considered to be the most important figure in American history. The 1832 centennial of his birth and the 1848 start of construction on the Washington Monument were cause for national celebration. By an Act of Congress in 1879, George Washington’s birthday became a federal holiday known as ‘Washington’s Birthday’. The first official holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American, it was celebrated on the date of his birth, February 22.
Considered to be another of the great presidents in United States history, President Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) was also born in February, on the 12th. While Lincoln’s birthday has never been recognized as a national holiday, several states, including Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, have declared it a state holiday.
In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, placing several national holidays on Mondays in order to create three day weekends for federal workers. As a result, the date of the Washington’s Birthday holiday was moved to the third Monday of February. Since this date always falls between the two presidents’ birthdays, many people were led to believe that this was done to honor both Washington and Lincoln.
An attempt was made in 1951 to officially rename the holiday ‘Presidents’ Day’. This failed because many Americans thought that not all presidents are deserving of such special recognition. Several states, however, moved ahead and adopted the name anyway. When retailers began calling their sales around the holiday ‘Presidents’ Day’ sales, Presidents’ Day became the commonly used name for the holiday.
To this day the official name of the national holiday remains Washington’s Birthday, a day set aside to honor our first president. For many Americans, it is a day to honor the contributions of all of our presidents.