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Presidents Day: Why We Celebrate

Brendan Smialowski- Getty Images

To tell the story of Presidents Day, we have to step back to the year 1800. George Washington had passed away the year before and his birthday; February 22nd became a day of remembrance for our first president.

At the time, George Washington was the most important person in American history and his life was cause for national celebration. Unofficially, Washington’s birthday was observed for most of the 1800s, but it wasn’t until late in the 1870s that it became a federal holiday.

Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas is the one credited with proposing that Washington’s birthday should be a federal holiday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes agreed with Senator Dorsey and signed it into law. At the time that it was signed into law, Washington’s birthday was only observed by those who lived in the District of Columbia, but by 1885, the entire company was observing Washington’s birthday.

Washington’s birthday was the first national holiday signed into law that celebrated the life of a single American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was signed into law in 1983 would be the second.

From 1879 to the late 1960’s, America celebrated Washington’s birthday, but then a change started to happen. Instead of celebrating the birth of George Washington, people started to celebrate all of the presidents.

In the late 1960’s, there was a senator named Robert McClory of Illinois who suggested Congress propose a new measure called the ‘Uniform Monday Holiday Act.’ The thinking behind this act was that several federal holidays should be moved to a predetermined Monday. This was there would be three day weekends for employed Americans and in turn would reduce the number of employees absent from work on any said federal holiday.  The act also sought to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12th. States such as Illinois has been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday for years, but the proposal would bring the nation together to celebrate his birthday as well.

Senator McClory suggested that Washington’s Day be renamed to “President’s Day.” Lawmakers weren’t crazy about that idea, so the subject was dropped. What wasn’t dropped though was the idea to  move several federal holidays to predetermined Mondays and in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed in 1968 and became official in 1971 under an executive order from President Nixon.

President Nixon continued to call the holiday Washington’s Birthday even though it was moved to a date other than Washington’s birth date. Because the date of observance was moved, most people thought that the new date was to honor both Washington and Lincoln since it fell right between their two birthdays. And in stepped marketers.

Marketers loved that Washington’s Birthday was moved to a Monday because it meant that they could play up the three day weekend with sales and suddenly, “Presidents’ Day” bargains were being advertised at stores around the country.

By the mid-1980s most Americans were calling Washington’s Birthday Presidents’ Day and by the early 2000’s, as many as half of the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents’ Day on their calendars.

While Washington and Lincoln are still the most recognized leaders of the free world, President’s Day is now seen as a way to honor and recognize the lives of all of America’s presidents.

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