What is there to know about Presidents Day? Also referred to as Washington’s Birthday, there is a colorful history behind the holiday that provides for a long weekend every February. Presidents Day is a celebration to honor all U.S. presidents, even though it originally started off as a celebration of George Washington’s birthday.
In 1879, Congress declared Washington’s Birthday a holiday for government offices in Washington, D.C., and in 1885 expanded it to cover all federal offices. The day joined four other nationally recognized federal holidays: Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Washington’s Birthday was the first holiday designated to celebrate the achievements of a single American, the second being Martin Luther King Jr.
Although Washington’s Birthday was originally celebrated on Feb. 22., his date of birth, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill in 1968, which moved several federal holidays to Monday, including Washington’s Birthday, to the third Monday of February. The UMHB was designed to schedule certain holidays so that workers had more long weekends throughout the year but was vociferously opposed by traditionalists who believed these holidays should fall on the days they commemorate. The official name change to Presidents Day was included in the bill but was eventually scrapped to ensure passage.
Some people point to Richard Nixon as the one responsible for changing Washington’s Birthday to what we now call Presidents Day by issuing a proclamation on Feb. 21, 1971, declaring the third Monday in February to be a “holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.” This story stems from a newspaper spoof. Nixon did issue an Executive Order (11582) on Feb. 11, 1971, but the announcement identified the day as Washington’s Birthday.
After moving the original date from Feb. 22, many people deemed the day to be celebrating both Abraham Lincoln and Washington, beginning a popular shift to being recognized as Presidents Day by the mid-1980s.
What is the function of a president in a democracy? How has the role of first lady changed over the years? Explore and engage with this free, curated collection of preK-12 resources, and share the historic legacy of not only Washington and Lincoln, but of all U.S. presidents.
Image Credit: Pete Souza, Obama-Biden Transition Project, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons