February is a popular month among our past presidents – both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were born in February (as were William H Harrison and Ronald Reagan), and President’s Day falls on the third Monday of the month. But who exactly does President’s Day celebrate?
It all started in 1800. After George Washington’s death in 1799, his birthday (February 22) became a national day of remembrance. The 1832 centennial of his birth and the start of construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 kept Washington’s memory in the national spotlight, and the tradition endured. In 1879, Washington’s Birthday officially became a federal holiday. At first, it was only celebrated in the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the whole country.
Washington was the first individual to be honored with a federal holiday; it would be another 98 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. became the second.
As we all know, President’s Day doesn’t fall on Washington’s February 22nd birthday. This is because in 1971, Richard Nixon signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law shifted several federal holidays from predetermined dates to designated Mondays. The bill received support from both the private sector (who knew that more long weekends would increase retail sales) and labor unions (who liked the idea of more long weekends for workers). The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine Abraham Lincoln’s February 12th birthday and George Washington’s February 22nd birthday; in many states, both birthdays were celebrated.
Thus, President’s Day was born. Though originally intended to celebrate Washington and Lincoln specifically, the holiday is now popularly seen as a day to celebrate all presidents, past and present.
Some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).
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