SAN JOSE: In recent years there has been much confusion over whether the holiday on the third Monday of February. Is it a day to remember the birthday of George Washington or a day to honor all American presidents?
Unfortunately, calendars do not often help to answer this question. Some calendars creating more confusion than clarification as they depict this Monday as “Presidents Day,” while others reference the day as “George Washington’s Birthday.”
Uniform Monday Holiday Act
Contrary to popular perception, there is no such federal holiday as President’s Day. The Congress of the United States debated and signed into law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act on June 28, 1968. It was legislation designed to increase the quantity of three-day weekends for all federal employees.
When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect on January 1, 1971, its purpose was to move traditional holidays celebrated throughout the year to fall on Monday dates. Holidays affected include Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veteran’s Day, as well as the remembrance of Washington’s Birthday.
The underlying reason that the name confusion persists is that the federal government began to tinker around and messed up a perfectly good birthday celebration for George Washington.
President’s Day or Washington’s birthday: Who is really being honored?
Although there had been an early draft of the Congressional calendar shell game that could have made Washington’s Birthday officially into “Presidents’ Day” to honor both Lincoln and Washington, it did not make it through the preliminary committee and the original name was maintained as “Washington’s Birthday.”
Thus, the official legislation did not establish a “Presidents’ Day” to combine Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday parties.
So, if it is recognition of George Washington’s Birthday, why is it so difficult to sort out the simple recognition of Washington’s Birthday as opposed to a combined celebration for Lincoln and Washington, or all U.S. presidents?
Unfortunately, the confusion was compounded because during the early 1970s when the nation’s economy began to tank. Private retailers which had learned that Congress originally intended to change the name of Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day decided to capitalize on the more generic name primarily to stimulate business.
Apparently, they had done their marketing homework, and for some odd reason, the retailers discovered that generic “Presidents” sold more products than just the one president who used to be “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
An enthusiastic marketing endeavor and a local department store promotion generated into a national phenomenon – in today’s terminology – “it went viral.”
The states decide on President’s Day
Ultimately, over a decade, and persisting today, the designation of good old George Washington’s birthday has unofficially been transformed into “Presidents’ Day,” with many Americans believing the latter name to be the legal designation of the federal holiday, and therefore it is essentially “official.”
Yet, while that is not true, it is true that a number of state governments (at least a dozen) since the 1970s have passed legislation to rename George Washington’s birthday observance as “Presidents’ Day or “Washington and Lincoln Day,” or other assorted variations with some sort of theme about presidents.
Thus, it ultimately depends upon where one lives (state governments truly determine the holiday where applicable) whether a citizen actually celebrates “Presidents’ Day,” or “George Washington’s birthday!”
Some states officially celebrate both birthdays!
One interesting point to note is that neither Lincoln’s birthday (February 12th), nor Washington’s birthday (February 22nd), will ever fall upon the third Monday of the month of February. That date can only occur between the 15th to the 21st of that month.
Interestingly, these dates fall between the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington but never on the exact dates. This guarantees that “Washington’s Birthday” as a federal holiday will always be a misnomer, and unfortunately, allows for no official federal recognition of Mr. Lincoln’s birthday.
Failing our President’s memory?
Yes, the federal government has never officially designated a day to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s birthday even though there is a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Since the original intent of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was legislation that was basically to maximize the number of three-day weekends for federal employees, why not designate another day, which could be the second Monday in February, to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday?
After all, without the Emancipation Proclamation, where would have Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. be in our history? Furthermore, one could wonder, if Rev. King had not come upon Lincoln’s foundation, where would Barack Obama be today?
Instead of suffering over the confusion over Presidents’ Day or George Washington’s Birthday, why not two? America could continue to call the present holiday George Washington’s Birthday. Then Congress could designate another day to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
However, if one considers it carefully, it could get politically nasty. If Congress is going to honor Lincoln, a Republican, the Democrats may insist on an equitable arrangement to honor a Democrat president – like F.D.R. or John Kennedy, or maybe both. After all, Mr. Lincoln is already on Mt. Rushmore.
On second thought, maybe with the nature of Congress these days, it is better to leave well enough alone.
Anyway, it may not fundamentally matter much. Most Americans seem to believe that there is an actual federal holiday lto honor the two most famous presidents born in the month of February: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Yet, including the likes of Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, or Grover Cleveland in such a legislative brainstorm, may seem way too much of a stretch.
No matter, someone long ago said that it’s the thought that counts, and what the American people believe is what actually counts – right?
Well, while all this may be important to some Americans, it is not important to many (maybe a majority).
Another one related to it is what might that say about the importance of the nation’s history to the general public? A serious and sad irony is that if a nation’s people forget its great leaders and notable men or women of the past, that nation could lose its connection to its roots and its foundation for existence.
America’s foundation is, on purpose, by men and women with a vision of something better – a vision of freedom. Whether one celebrates Washington’s Birthday to honor the Father of the Country, or Presidents’ Day to honor Washington and also Lincoln, it is important to remember the original vision of freedom, and how it originated.
It is important to honor any presidents who honored the original vision of freedom, and how they honored such a vision by their courageous actions at the risk of their lives. It is important to remember.