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The History of Presidents’ Day

The History of Presidents’ Day

Of the many holidays and other commemorative days throughout the year, Presidents’ Day is one of the lesser-understood. Sure, it’s a day to honor our nation’s past and current presidents. But where did this holiday come from and what, exactly, does it signify?

Aside from a nationally recognized holiday (and a day off of work for some), Presidents’ Day is an opportunity for us to remember the achievements and accomplishments of our nation’s most honorable leaders. From the popular achievements of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to the often-forgotten exploits of James K. Polk and Lyndon B. Johnson, this day is a chance for us to learn more about the men who’ve shaped our nation.

Here’s a quick look at the history of Presidents’ Day and what it means to celebrate this holiday.

The Origins of Presidents’ Day

The Presidents’ Day holiday takes place each year on the third Monday in February. This special day serves to honor all American presidents, present and past. Although it’s officially called Washington’s Birthday and was originally created to honor President George Washington, many now refer to it as Presidents’ Day.

As a federal holiday, many schools give children, teachers and staff members the day off, and some businesses close their doors for the day. But how did Presidents’ Day come to exist?

The Meaning Behind Presidents’ Day

The first celebration of Presidents’ Day took place to honor President George Washington. The official recognition began in 1885 when it was established as a day of remembrance throughout the entire country. But the story of Presidents’ Day started much earlier than that—and almost a century later, the holiday was turned into a day to acknowledge and show appreciation for all presidents, including Washington.

How Did Presidents’ Day Come into Existence?

Beginning in 1800, following the death of Washington in 1799, a day of remembrance was held each year on February 22, Washington’s birthday. This was established as a time to celebrate Washington’s many contributions to this country.

Washington’s birthday was observed unofficially throughout the decades that followed. However, in 1879 Washington’s Birthday became a federal holiday, thanks to a proposal offered by Senator Stephen Wallace Dorsey and the act of President Rutherford B. Hayes, to make it official.

When it first became a federal holiday, Washington’s Birthday was only a holiday in the District of Columbia. In 1885, this changed, and Washington’s Birthday was celebrated as a federal holiday nationwide.

The Evolution of Presidents’ Day

The holiday celebrating Washington’s Birthday started to lean towards Presidents’ Day in the late 1960s, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was proposed. This Act was proposed by Senator Robert McClory who wanted to take certain federal holidays and celebrate them on predetermined Mondays throughout the year. The reason behind doing so was claimed by many to be a way to have three-day weekends and ensure the holidays fell on the same weekday each year.

Also initially included with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was a provision that combined the celebration of Washington’s birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and the proposal to rename the holiday Presidents’ Day. However, this concept didn’t receive universal agreement and didn’t come to pass. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act received approval and took effect in 1971 thanks to President Richard M. Nixon’s executive order.

The Shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day

Although Washington’s Birthday was never officially changed to Presidents’ Day, during the 1970s and 1980s people began to refer to the holiday as simply “Presidents’ Day.” It was especially used by retailers and marketers to advertise sales on this three-day weekend and call it a “Presidents’ Day Sale.”

By the early 2000s, half of all states had changed the name of Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day. This led to a common theme across the country and the shift from calling it Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day or even Presidents’ Day weekend. However, on the official calendar, the third Monday in February is still listed as Washington’s Birthday.

Celebrate the Historic Achievements of our Leaders

Whether you choose to call this holiday Washington’s Birthday or Presidents’ Day, it’s a good time to engage in patriotic celebration and honor the current and prior presidents in office. It’s also your opportunity to learn more about the history of our leaders and the decisions they’ve made that define their presidency—and the trajectory of our country.

This upcoming Presidents’ Day, while you’re enjoying a much-deserved day off of work or shopping a local retailer’s sale, take a moment to look up a president and learn more about them. Whether it’s a popular president like Teddy Roosevelt or a lesser-known one like Millard Fillmore, you’re sure to learn something interesting!

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