An official list of federal holidays in the United States won’t feature “Presidents’ Day” among the observed holidays. Some may say that’s preposterous, as they’re certain that post offices and other federal entities are closed on such a day each February. While the third Monday of February is commonly referred to as “Presidents’ Day” throughout the United States, the day is legally referred to as “Washington’s Birthday.”
According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, this holiday is designated as “Washington’s Birthday” in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for federal employees. Though other institutions, such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is OPM policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.
History of Washington’s Birthday
The idea to give presidents a little extra fanfare originally was established in 1885 in recognition of George Washington. After his death in 1799, Washington’s birthday on February 22 became a day of remembrance, according to History.com. Its observance as an official holiday was signed into law in 1879 by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Originally, the holiday only applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the entire country.
Abraham Lincoln, another revered American president whose birthday was February 12, also was largely celebrated during the month of February as a state holiday, particularly in his home state of Illinois. In the 1960s, when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that designated Monday as the day to celebrate various federal holidays, the proposal also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays to provide more equal recognition of these two influential leaders. The name Presidents’ Day was proposed at that time. However, when the bill moving the celebration of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February went into effect in 1971, Congress rejected the name change, so it remained Washington’s Birthday. That name stands to this day.
Why Presidents’ Day?
Even though federal calendars will list February 15 this year as Washington’s Birthday, it will largely be referred to as Presidents’ Day. This unofficial moniker developed in the 1970s due largely in part to retailer’s use of that name to promote sales and the proximity of the holiday to both the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln. Indeed, a Washington’s Birthday furniture sale doesn’t have the same ring to it as a Presidents’ Day sale.
No matter what the holiday is called, Presidents’ Day offers citizens a chance to learn more about the history behind Washington and Lincoln – two pivotal statesmen in American history.