Are we celebrating Presidents’ Day or Washington’s Birthday?
The answer is both. Though according to section 6103(a) of title 5 of the U.S. Code, we technically celebrate Washington’s Birthday.
Washington’s Birthday officially honors the life and work of the first president of the United States. The celebration of his birthday began during the last year of his presidency in 1796. February 22 became a time to honor Washington, though informally, until 1880 when it was made the first federal holiday to honor a person.
It was also during this time that Congress discussed the idea of honoring Abraham Lincoln’s February birthday. Thus, while most states have adopted Washington’s Birthday, some states officially celebrate Presidents’ Day. And more importantly the passage of 6103(a) maintained the official name of the holiday as Washington’s Birthday.
Fast-forward to 1968 and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Washington’s Birthday to Mondays in order to extend weekends, thus the celebration of Washington would revert to the third Monday in February, each year.
So why is the use of “Presidents Day” so prevalent?
For this, we can thank Texas and California.
Both states and their retailers saw an opportunity to promote sales during the entire month of February by bridging the gap between the traditional, overlapping, state celebrations of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays. The popularity of retailers using “Presidents Day” versus “Washington’s Birthday” led to common use and acceptance of the former, nationwide.
So when you see the litany of television advertisements for special Presidents Day sales at car dealerships, furniture stores and other mass retailers, know that it was this bastion of Americanism and Capitalism that drove change in celebration of our nation’s greatest leaders.