Presidents Day or George Washington's birthday?

What exactly do we celebrate on the third Monday of February? Photo: George Washington

SAN JOSE, CA, February 17, 2013 - Calendars are useful tools.  However, they sometimes create more confusion than clarification over dates designated as holidays. Holidays are good, but if one does not really know what the celebration is about, can such a special day be truly appreciated?

An excellent example of such confusion is the present day remembrance of George Washington’s Birthday. The third Monday of February has legally been designated by the United States’ Congress as a day to remember the birthday of George Washington and some calendars will accurately designate it so.  However, other calendars depict the third Monday in February as “Presidents Day” and others reference the day as “Presidents’ Day.” To make it even more confusing, there are yet other calendars that refer to this day as “President’s Day!” It should not be that difficult to sort out the simple recognition of George Washington’s Birthday.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, for one thing, English punctuation is important and it sends messages to those able to decipher the subtle distinctions. If U.S. citizens are celebrating “Presidents Day,” they are in fact celebrating or honoring all the other presidents of the United States along with good old George Washington. This is because without any apostrophe, the “s” at the end of the word presidents designates a plural reality. This means to the careful reader that the holiday is a celebration of all forty plus former presidents and the current occupant of the White House.

Even with an apostrophe at the end of the word presidents(‘), which designates possession as well as plurality, the word implies that at least more than one president is being honored; and in all likelihood, it is perhaps all of the presidents who are fully entitled to be honored on this day. Most people seem to accept that it is primarily a federal holiday to honor the two most famous presidents born in the month of February: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. It would seem to be a bit of a stretch to include the likes  of Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur, or Grover Cleveland in such a holiday.

On the other hand, regarding the punctuation, if the illusive apostrophe is placed between before the final “s” in presidents (like so: President’s) it designates individual ownership that would mean the day is for one and only one of the U.S. presidents. This suggests that the day is meant to honor the Father of the Country. This recognition may bring one back full circle to the original intent of the holiday, which was to maintain the holiday that honored the very first president.

So, the question is simply this: Why not call the holiday George Washington’s Birthday? Yes, indeed, it may be too simple to call it what it is. 

George Washington’s Birthday was celebrated in a public way even while he was president. Years later, the holiday became an official federal holiday in 1885. On February 21st of that year, President Chester Arthur, in one of the last public ceremonies in which he participated before leaving office, dedicated the Washington Monument. Later in 1885, he signed a Congressional bill which expanded the earlier Congressional Act of 1879 creating a federal holiday for Washington’s Birthday for the government workers in the District of Columbia. The 1885 legislation essentially transformed Washington’s birthday into a legitimate federal holiday, giving holiday benefits to all federal employees.

This holiday was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen. It was originally celebrated on what was considered Washington’s actual birthday of February 22nd. However, George Washington was not really born on that day.

When Washington was born on Pope Creek’s Farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia, it was February 11, 1731! This can be blamed on another inaccurate calendar, the Julian Calendar, which was still used by the British Empire until 1752. Although the Gregorian Calendar was utilized by most of the Catholic world from the date of the papal bull of Pope Gregory XIII which was decreed on February 24, 1582, the British didn’t weren’t part of the Roman Catholic realm. Through the Calendar Act of 1750, the British finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, but it became confusing for all of the English subjects in the realm born after that year.

In 1752, good old George Washington’s birthday under the British Empire’s newly adopted Gregorian Calendar, became February 22, 1732. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Congress decided to add to the calendar confusion, and on January 1, 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect and transformed several traditional holidays celebrated throughout the year to Monday dates, This included the remembrance of Washington’s Birthday. So, contrary to popular perception, this legislation did not establish a “Presidents Day” to combine Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday parties.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act was debated by Congress and signed into law on June 28, 1968, and was simply designed to increase the quantity of three-day weekends for all federal employees. Although there had been an early draft of the Congressional calendar shell game that would have made Washington’s Birthday officially into “Presidents’ Day” (to honor both presidents - Lincoln and Washington), it did not make it through the preliminary committee and  the original name was maintained as “Washington’s Birthday.”  

The underlying reason for the name confusion is that the federal government began to tinker with it and messed up a perfectly good birthday celebration for George Washington. To compound the problem, the nation’s economy in the 1970’s began to tank. Private retailers which had learned by that time that Congress originally intended to change the name of Washington’s Birthday     to Presidents/s’/’s Day, pivoted off of the more generic name to primarily stimulate business. They had done their marketing homework, and for some odd reason, the retailers discovered that generic “Presidents” sold more products than the one who used to be “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” or so it has been rationalized.

A marketing endeavor and a local department store promotion generated into a national phenomenon – in today’s terminology –  “it went viral!” At this time the designation of Mr. Washington’s birthday has unofficially been transformed into “Presidents/s’/’s Day,” with many Americans believing that the name of the legal federal holiday is essentially official. But this is not true. It is true  that a number of state governments (at least a dozen) have passed legislation to rename the holiday observance as “Presidents’ Day or “Washington and Lincoln Day,” or other assorted variations along the same theme.

In reality, it ultimately depends upon where one lives (state governments truly determine the holiday where applicable) whether they actually celebrate “Presidents Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” or “President’s Day!” Some states officially celebrate both birthdays! Actually, neither Lincoln’s birthday (February 12th), nor Washington’s birthday 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 allows for no true or official recognition of Mr. Lincoln’s birthday.

No matter, someone long ago said that it’s the thought that counts. While this all may be important to some Americans, it is not important to many and what does that really reveal about the importance of the nation’s history to the general public? Sadly, if a nation forgets its great leaders and notable men or women of the past, that nation will lose its roots and foundation. America was founded on purpose by men and women with a vision of something better than what the world had experienced to the time of the nation’s birth. Whether one celebrates Presidents Day or Washington’s Birthday or a combination of such days, it is important to remember where the vision originated or when it was substantiated by action. 

Happy Birthday the men and women who made America great!                      

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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