Presidents Day is an American holiday widely recognized as celebrating all U.S. presidents, past and present. But where did this holiday come from?
Presidents Day began in 1800 following the death of George Washington in 1799. His February 22 birthday became a day of remembrance. At the time, Washington was celebrated as the most important figure in American history, so the centennial of his birth and beginning of construction on the Washington Monument were causes for national celebration. His birthday was unofficially observed for most of the 1800s until it became a federal holiday in 1879. It was the first federal holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the second, signed into law in 1983.
Uniform Monday Holiday Act
During the late 1960s, a shift began from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. Part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act included combining the celebration of Washington’s birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln’s, February 12, which was celebrated by some states throughout the nation. At this time, lawmakers even proposed changing the holiday name to Presidents Day, but this was met with contention.
The main part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971. It shifted the federal holiday Washington’s Birthday from its fixed date of February 22 to the third Monday of February. Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day were also moved from their traditionally designated days. Veterans Day was returned to its original November 11 date due to widespread criticism in 1980.
President's Day never falls on the actual birthday of any American president. Four chief executives—George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan—were born in February, but their birthdays all come either too early or late to coincide with Presidents Day, which is always celebrated on the third Monday of the month.
Presidents Day Today
The 1971 law kept Washington’s Birthday as the official title of the holiday, but many believed that the move from February 22 was intended to honor both Washington and Lincoln because it fell between their birthdays. Marketers soon used the new opportunity to advertise “Presidents Day” weekend sales.
By the mid-1980s, Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents Day. And in the early 2000s, nearly half of the states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents Day on their calendars.
Today, Washington and Lincoln still remain two of the most recognized American leaders, but Presidents day is popularly seen as an opportunity to recognize the lives and achievements of all the presidents. The federal government however, still views the holiday as a celebration of the first president. On official calendars, the third Monday in February is still listed as Washington’s Birthday.