President’s Day goes by with little notice, except for some schools and federal employees getting to ‘observe’ the holiday. Supermarkets and retail stores advertise President’s Day sales hoping to draw in those lucky enough to have the day off.
However, do you know what the legal name for the holiday is, how it became a national holiday and the reason it was established?
Some believe President’s Day is meant to honor all the American presidents, with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln coming to mind for most. Although prior to 1968 both birthdays were observed in the month of February, only one was, and still is, a national holiday.
George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731, according to the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752, however, Britain and all its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar which moved his birthday a year and 11 days to February 22, 1732.
Washington’s Birthday, the national holiday, was actually created 70 years after his death when on January 31, 1879, Congress added February 22nd to the list of holidays to be observed by federal employees, some paid, some unpaid, in the District of Columbia only. Six years later, Congress ruled that all federal employees would be authorized a paid holiday for Washington’s Birthday.
According to a National Archives’ Center for Legislative Archives article on George Washington’s Birthday, nearly 90 years later, “Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to ‘provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.’ By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to ‘bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.’”
The article continued, stating that “one of the provisions of this act changed the observance of Washington’s Birthday from February 22nd to the third Monday in February. Ironically, this guaranteed that the holiday would never be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday in February cannot fall any later than February 21.”
Today, “Presidents Day” is observed in some but not all states, but the third Monday of February legally remains Washington’s Birthday. Contrary to popular belief, neither Congress nor the President has ever stipulated that the name of the holiday observed as Washington’s Birthday be legally changed to “President’s Day.”
The U. S. Senate Web site states that the Senate tradition of the reading of President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address began on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War. Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson introduced a petition from the citizens of Philadelphia to commemorate the anniversary of Washington’s birth by reading the Address at a joint meeting of both houses.
“In view of the perilous condition of the country,” he said, “I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.”
Every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington’s Birthday by selecting one of its members, alternating parties, to read the 7,641-word statement in legislative session. That tradition continues today.
A federal holiday is established for reasons other than having a day off or shopping. As we observe Washington’s 282nd Birthday, we are also reminded that it is the month we observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebrating the birth of both affords us the opportunity to broaden our knowledge of civil rights issues, not only from the 1950’s and 1960’s, but from the birth of our nation.
It is noteworthy that only two Americans, George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have been honored with individual federal holidays.
(NOTE: Linda Welz, Beacon editor, contributed to this story, which was revised from the original story that can be seen at http://www.march.afrc.af.mil/news/story_print.asp?id=123290909.)