Presidents’ Day: The Holiday with an Identity Crisis

Presidents Day Happy Presidents’ Day to all!! While many people work on this holiday, as a Federal holiday, others have the day off. There are a handful of holidays throughout the year that are recognized as Federal holidays but not considered a non-working holiday by many non-government entities. However, did you know the history behind this holiday? Particularly this background has provided this day with an “identity crisis”?

Ask half a dozen people who Presidents’ Day is meant to honor, and you may get half a dozen different answers. Beyond the issue of which presidents are honored, there isn't even universal agreement on whether there is an apostrophe in “presidents."

Aside from the grammatical issue, this holiday is recognized by different names. While the ‘official’ holiday name is Presidents’ Day, legally, this day is still designated as George Washington’s Birthday.

But the confusion/discrepancy doesn’t stop there. While this holiday is a Federal holiday, numerous States celebrate differently and on other days of the year.

Let’s look at the origin of this holiday and where the name discrepancy evolved. Originally recognized as Washington’s Birthday on February 22nd, the federal government revised this to celebrate ALL Presidents, and the date was altered to be the third Monday of February.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill creating three national holidays to be celebrated on three designated Mondays during each year to encourage more family time. The three holidays were Washington's Birthday, designated to be observed in February on the third Monday of the month; Memorial Day, designated to be observed in May on the last Monday of the month; and Veterans Day designated to be observed in October on the fourth Monday of the month. This bill also requested a formal change in name from Washington Day to Presidents Day, however this portion of the bill was denied.

In 1971, President Nixon signed an executive order stating that all presidents’ birthdays should be celebrated on the holiday of "Washington's Birthday" in February. The reason for this executive order was to consolidate the two federal holidays of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday that were currently being celebrated.

It’s fascinating that within a four year stretch, “time off” was created for more family time, then it was reduced elsewhere. However it makes sense that once the Federal holiday of George Washington’s birthday was created for all to enjoy, a separate day in February for only school kids and government employees to have off on Lincoln’s birthday wasn’t necessary.

While the Federal holiday of George Washington’s Birthday is celebrated, albeit under the more common pseudonym President’s Day, many states recognize and/or celebrate this holiday differently. In particular:

  • In Virginia, the holiday is officially (and legally) named George Washington Day and only recognizes the first president of the United States, who hailed from Virginia.
  • Massachusetts recognizes the Federal holiday of “Presidents’ Day” as “George Washington Day” and celebrates “Presidents Day” by honoring the four presidents originally from this state: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy. This Presidents Day is honored on May 29th, JFK’s birthday.
  • Alabama uniquely celebrates this holiday as “Washington and Jefferson” day, even though Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is in April.
  • Indiana and Georgia celebrate “George Washington Day” in December.
  • And, many states, including California, hold “Presidents’ Day” as a federal holiday and celebrate Lincoln’s birthday as a state holiday.

So, Happy Presidents’ Day/George Washington’s Birthday to all!! However you want to spell it, call it or celebrate it, we hope you enjoy!!