Presidents’ Day is an American holiday observed on the third Monday of February. This federal holiday was originally established in 1885 to recognize the birthday of President George Washington, which was Feb. 22.
A Day for Patriotism
The real story of Presidents’ Day holiday began in 1800, a year following our first president’s death. Washington was venerated as a very important figure in American history, and his birthday became a perennial day of remembrance. In fact, the 1832 centennial of his birth and the construction of the Washington Monument, which began in 1848, were both causes for national celebration.
Washington’s birthday day eventually became the fourth federally-recognized holiday after Christmas, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. From 1885 until the 1960s, George Washington Day was celebrated on Feb. 22. It was the first holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American; Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which became a federal holiday in 1983, was the second such holiday.
Similar to Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day, Presidents’ Day is traditionally viewed as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance. In 1932, the date was utilized to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military decoration created by Washington to honor soldiers wounded or killed while serving in the armed forces. In 1938, more than 5,000 people attended mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to honor Washington. And to this day, patriotic groups and the Boy Scouts of America frequently host celebrations on the day.
Celebrating Presidents Washington and Lincoln
Although Washington’s birthday is still recognized by the federal government, a change was made 50 years ago to honor the Feb. 12 birthday of another famous president — Abraham Lincoln. Because of Washington’s and Lincoln’s popularity, especially throughout the Great Depression, most state governments observed both February 12 and 22.
But in 1968, Congress introduced “The Uniform Monday Holiday Act,” which combined Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday for equal recognition, and also moved Memorial Day and Veterans Day to designated Mondays. This helped standardize more holidays and created more three-day weekends for U.S. workers.
It didn’t take long for marketers and businesses to jump at the opportunity to play up the new three-day weekend with “Presidents’ Day” sales and bargains to advertise at retail stores around the country.
And even though President’s Day was originally intended to celebrate our first president’s birthday, it has now evolved to honor all U.S. presidents. However, only two other presidents have had February birthdays: William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan.