The Truth Behind Presidents’ Day (Hint: It’s Not What You Think!)

Presidents' Day

Presidents’ Day is on February 20th this year. However, ask ten people why we celebrate this holiday, and you’ll get ten different answers. So we did some digging into the history of the holiday and what the day is really about. Here’s what we learned:

It’s not really Presidents Day.
According to the federal government and section 6103(a) of title 5 of the U.S. Code, the holiday is still called Washington’s Birthday.

It’s got a long history
We started unofficially celebrating Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, at the end of the 18th century. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law.

It got a face-lift about fifty years ago.
In 1968, Congress introduced the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill—the goal was to create as many three-day weekends as possible for people working in the U.S. (Thank you Congress!)  The Bill was signed into law and took effect in 1971, so we started celebrating the Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday of February. According to Time, some people were not pleased. “This change upset die-hard George Washington supporters who felt the true nature of the holiday required celebration only on Feb. 22,” the article says.

Washington started sharing the glory.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Bill also had a provision to combine the celebration of George Washington’s birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s, which fell on February 12. Some states were already celebrating his birthday separately, and the idea was to combine the two days and recognize these two great Presidents on the same day. Senator Robert McFlory suggested renaming the holiday Presidents’ Day, but the idea was not accepted by some (including Virginia, Washington’s home state.) However, over time, people started calling the holiday Presidents’ Day anyway. Some assumed that the date change meant that we were, in fact, celebrating both presidents’ birthdays. By the start of the new millennium, about half the states started calling it Presidents’ Day officially.

Where we stand today.
While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents’ Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present. Of course, you can celebrate the day however you like: Honor Washington, Lincoln, or both. Honor every president, or leave a few out. It doesn’t really matter. What is most important iis that we all remember why we honor these people in the first place: The power of the presidency gives people an outlet to do courageous things that can shape American history forever. Washington set our democracy in motion. Lincoln ended slavery. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If it weren’t for these heroes, where would be?

 

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