It's Washington's Birthday
By Dan Simmons, 92nd Air Refueling Wing historian
/ Published February 15, 2007
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
As we prepare to celebrate Presidents' Day, it is probably a good time to inform you that there is no such thing.
Although the calendars, store advertisers and newscasters celebrate the event as a day to recognize all of our presidents, the designation is unfounded when one looks at the history.
Even though Presidents' Day has become the common name for the holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February, the official federal holiday designation remains "Washington's Birthday."
It all began back in 1778 when Americans first started celebrating George Washington's birthday on Feb. 22. It soon became a great national celebration, second only to the Fourth of July as a patriotic holiday. It was officially recognized by Congress as a national holiday in 1870 and was celebrated on Feb. 22 for the next 100 years. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill moved the holiday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. This action, which took effect in 1971, was designed to simplify the yearly calendar of holidays and give employees standard three-day weekend holidays.
Along with that legislative action was a motion to honor both Washington and Abraham Lincoln - whose birth date is Feb. 12 - on that federal holiday. It was voted down. There was never a federal holiday that honored Abraham Lincoln.
In the late 1980s, advertisers began playing a role in changing the holiday title to Presidents' Day. Even though Lincoln's birthday was not a federal holiday, it was still recognized as a significant date in U.S. history and still something important to celebrate.
It was also something the business world could capitalize on. Advertisers began to aggressively combine separate Washington and Lincoln birthday sales into a longer "Presidents' Day" sale period. The popularity of the term grew, and it became a part of our calendar even though there was never an official government change to the name.
There is an urban legend that President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation in 1971 that called for the third Monday of February to be a day to honor all presidents, but no evidence of this exists in his official papers. Officially, there is no Presidents' Day, but some states (including Washington) do list it as the official name of this holiday.
We have had good presidents and bad presidents, but we have only had one "Father of our Country." That is probably why the official holiday name remains "Washington's Birthday."