Every year, the third Monday in February is set aside as Presidents Day, but what exactly is the holiday, and how did it get started?
The holiday, known as Presidents Day, is officially known as Washington’s Birthday, though it rarely occurs on Washington’s actual birthdate, February 22. This is due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, which permanently shifted all federal holidays to fall on a Monday.
Also in 1971, former President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation calling the holiday “Presidents Day” and stating its intent was to honor all past and present United States presidents, but the official proposal to rename the holiday never went through, so the holiday is still officially named “Washington’s Birthday.”
Former President George Washington was born on February 22, 1731 (February 11 in the old Julian calendar) in Popes Creek, Virginia. The federal holiday officially honoring Washington was implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington, D.C., then expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices. The first attempt to create a “Presidents Day” occurred in 1951, the brainchild of Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California. The intent was not to honor any particular president, but the office of the presidency itself. The original proposed date was March 4, the original Inauguration Day, however the bill to declare it as such stalled in the Senate. The thinking was that having three holidays so close together would be burdensome—in addition to Washington’s Birthday, former President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, while it was never a federal holiday, was observed as a state holiday in many places. After Nixon’s proclamation and the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, the modern Presidents Day began to take shape and by the 1980’s, it had become popular among advertisers.
Interestingly, while the federal holiday is officially named Washington’s Birthday and commonly referred to as Presidents Day, the spelling or name of the holiday frequently varies on a state-by-state basis. In West Virginia, the state holiday is called Presidents Day. In Virginia, the holiday is called George Washington Day and several states celebrate a combined Lincoln and Washington Day. In Alabama, the state holiday is George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Day, while in Arkansas, it is known as George Washington/Daisy Bates Day. Daisy Bates was a civil rights activist who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957. In California, the holiday is unnamed; meanwhile, February 12, explicitly known as “Lincoln’s Birthday,” is treated as a separate holiday. Several states also honor presidents with state holidays that fall outside of the third Monday in February.
An important detail to remember is that schools, banks, post offices and all federal and city government offices are closed on Monday, February 21, 2022 in recognition of the holiday.