Washington’s Birthday is a United States federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States. Colloquially, it is widely known as “Presidents Day” and is often an occasion to remember all the presidents, not just George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is also in February. The term “Presidents Day” was informally coined in a deliberate attempt to use the holiday to honor multiple presidents and is virtually always used that way today.
With official names including Presidents’ Day, President’s Day and Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday, the day is also a state holiday in most states. It officially celebrates, depending upon the state, Washington alone, Washington and Lincoln, or some other combination of U.S. presidents. Some states celebrate Washington and the third president Thomas Jefferson but not Lincoln. Both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays are in February. In historical rankings of Presidents of the United States Lincoln and Washington are frequently, but not always, the top two presidents.
Official State Holidays:
Although Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, was never a federal holiday, nearly half of the state governments have officially renamed their Washington’s Birthday observances as “Presidents’ Day”, “Washington and Lincoln Day”, or other such designations. However, “Presidents’ Day” is not always an all-inclusive term and might refer to only a selection of presidents.
In the following states, Washington’s Birthday is an official state holiday and known as:
- Presidents’ Day in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington
- President’s Day in Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming
- Presidents Day in Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon
- Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day in Maine
- Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day in Arizona
- Washington’s Birthday in Massachusetts
- George Washington Day in Virginia
- Washington and Lincoln Day in Utah
- Washington–Lincoln Day in Colorado, Ohio
- Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday in Montana
Washington and another person
- George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday in Alabama
- George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day in Arkansas
Several states honor presidents with official date holidays that do not fall on the third Monday of February. In Massachusetts, the state officially celebrates “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day as the Federal holiday. State law also directs the governor to issue an annual “Presidents Day” proclamation on May 29 (John F. Kennedy’s birthday), honoring the presidents with Massachusetts roots: Kennedy, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Calvin Coolidge. In California, Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois, while Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is still a state holiday, falling on February 12 regardless of the day of the week. In New Mexico, Presidents’ Day, at least as a state-government paid holiday, is observed on the Friday following Thanksgiving. In Georgia, Presidents’ Day, at least as a state-government paid holiday, is observed on Christmas Eve (Observed on the prior Thursday if Christmas falls on Saturday; observed on the prior Friday if Christmas falls on a Sunday. If December 24 is a Wednesday, then this holiday is observed on Friday December 26.)
The federal holiday honoring George Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington (20 Stat. 277) and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices (23 Stat. 516). As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places it between February 15 and 21, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” in some sense a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington’s actual birthday, either February 11 (Old Style), or February 22 (New Style).
The first attempt to create a Presidents Day occurred in 1951 when the “President’s Day National Committee” was formed by Harold Stone Bridge Fischer of Compton, California, who became its National Executive Director for the next two decades. The purpose was not to honor any particular President but to honor the office of the Presidency. It was first thought that March 4, the original inauguration day, should be deemed Presidents Day. However, the bill recognizing the March 4 date was stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which had authority over federal holidays). That committee felt that, because of its proximity to Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays, three holidays so close together would be unduly burdensome. During this time, however, the Governors of a majority of the individual states issued proclamations declaring March 4 to be Presidents’ Day in their respective jurisdictions.
An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday to “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, which would explain why the chosen date falls between the two, but this proposal failed in committee, and the bill was voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, keeping the name as Washington’s Birthday.
By the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers, the term “Presidents’ Day” began its public appearance.
In Washington’s adopted hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, celebrations are held throughout the month of February.
Observance and Traditions:
Today, the February holiday has become well known for being a day in which many stores, especially car dealers, hold sales. Until the late 1980s, corporate businesses generally closed on this day, similar to present corporate practices on Memorial Day or Christmas Day. With the late 1980s advertising push to rename the holiday, more and more businesses are staying open on the holiday each year, and, as on Veterans Day and Columbus Day, most delivery services outside of the U.S. Postal Service now offer regular service on the day as well. Some public transit systems have also gone to regular schedules on the day. Many colleges and universities hold regular classes and operations on Presidents’ Day. Various theories exist for this, one accepted reason being to make up for the growing trend of corporations to close in observance of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Conversely, many schools and business formerly open on this day began closing after the observance of Dr. King’s birthday holiday became prevalent. This was done in order not to diminish Washington’s birthday in comparison to King’s. However, when reviewing the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill debate of 1968 in the Congressional Record, one notes that supporters of the Bill were intent on moving federal holidays to Mondays to promote business.
Consequently, some schools, which used to close for a single day for both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthday, now often close for the entire week (beginning with the Monday holiday) as a “mid-winter recess”. For example, the New York City school district began doing so in the 1990s.
The federal holiday Washington’s Birthday honors the accomplishments of the man known as “The Father of his Country”. Celebrated for his leadership in the founding of the nation, he was the Electoral College’s unanimous choice to become the first President; he was seen as a unifying force for the new republic and set an example for future holders of the office.
The holiday is also a tribute to the general who created the first military badge of merit for the common soldier. Revived on Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932, the Purple Heart medal (which bears Washington’s image) is awarded to soldiers who are injured in battle. As with Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Washington’s Birthday offers another opportunity to honor the country’s veterans.
Community celebrations often display a lengthy heritage. Washington’s hometown of historic Alexandria, Virginia, hosts a month-long tribute, including the longest running George Washington Birthday parade, while the community of Eustis, Florida, continues its annual “George Fest” celebration begun in 1902. In Denver, Colorado there is a society dedicated to observing the day. At the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and at Mount Vernon, visitors are treated to birthday celebrations throughout the federal holiday weekend and through February 22.
In 2007 the country celebrated both Washington’s 275th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the rebirth of the Purple Heart medal.
Since 1862 there has been a tradition in the United States Senate that George Washington’s Farewell Address be read on his birthday. Citizens had asked that this be done in light of the approaching Civil War. The annual tradition continues with the reading of the address on or near Washington’s Birthday.
Because “Presidents’ Day” is not the official name of the federal holiday, there is variation in how it is rendered, both in the name of official state holidays and colloquially. Both “Presidents Day” and “Presidents’ Day” are common today, and both are considered correct by dictionaries and usage manuals. “Presidents’ Day” was once the predominant style, and it is still favored by leading authorities, notably, The Chicago Manual of Style, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Webster’s Third International Dictionary, and Garner’s Modern American Usage. In recent years, as the use of attributive nouns (nouns acting as modifiers) has become more widespread, the popularity of “Presidents Day” has increased. This style is favored by the Associated Press Stylebook (followed by most newspapers and some magazines) and the Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference (ISBN 978-1582973357).
“President’s Day” is a misspelling when used with the intention of celebrating more than one individual (see also apostrophe). However, as an alternate rendering of “Washington’s Birthday,” or for the purpose of commemorating of the presidency as an institution, it is a proper use of a possessive. Indeed, this latter spelling was considered for the official federal designation by U.S. Rep. Robert McClory (IL) who was tasked with getting the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act through the House Judiciary Committee. Though “President’s Day” is sometimes seen in print, even on government websites, this style is not endorsed by any major dictionary or usage authority, but is the legal spelling in eight states.