Reflections: Happy birthday, George!
Happy birthday, George!
By William L. Bulla
The calendar on my desk says that February 21st is "Presidents' Day". Wow! What happened to Washington's Birthday? And then I noticed that Lincoln's Birthday is not listed on February 12th, either.
Presidents' Day is a common name now being used for the federal holiday officially designated as Washington's Birthday, but it is not the official name. As the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen, the holiday was celebrated on Washington's actual birthday on February 22, 1796, the last full year of his presidency. Signed into law January 31, 1879, by President Rutherford B. Hayes, the law was implemented in 1880, and applied only to District federal workers. In 1885, the holiday was extended to federal workers in the thirty-eight states. Washington's Birthday had become the first federal holiday to single out an individual's birth date.
According to the federal government, the holiday observed on the third Monday in February is officially Washington's Birthday. But many Americans believe that this holiday is now called "Presidents' Day," in honor of both Presidents Washington and Lincoln, as well as all the other men who have served as president.
Advertisers have joined both "Abraham Lincoln's Birthday" and "George Washington's Birthday" into the sales event "Presidents' Day," expanding the sales event to begin on February 12 and end after Washington's February 22 birth date. In some instances, advertisers promote the sales campaign through the entire month of February.
In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act, which moved the official observance of Washington's Birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Some reformers had wanted to change the name of the holiday as well, to Presidents' Day, in honor of both Lincoln and Washington, but Congress rejected that proposal, and the holiday remained officially Washington's Birthday.
However, by the mid-1980s, the term was appearing in newspaper advertising and editorials with different "spellings" of the advertising holiday. The Associated Press stylebook placed the apostrophe between the "t" and "s" ("President's Day"), while grammatical purists positioned the apostrophe after the "s" believing Presidents' deferred the day to the "many" rather than one singular "president."
Advertising had its effects on various calendar manufacturers, as they began substituting Presidents' Day for Washington's Birthday. Eventually, when printed in the newspaper or seen on the calendar, few gave thought to its accuracy.
The observance of Presidents' Day in the United States is reminiscent of the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant in the sense that the holiday seems to mean something different to everybody. In looking through the local newspaper, one could easily conclude that merchants created the modern holiday, just so they could hold their annual Presidents' Day sales.
Depending on your perspective, Presidents' Day is intended to honor George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, (for whom there is no national holiday,) or all the American presidents. Both of these assumptions are false. I prefer to recognize the day as one to honor our first president.
Happy birthday, George.
William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.