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The Honest-Abe Truth about President's Day

 

Most Americans could name George Washington as the nation's first president (under the current Constitution). Likewise, they could name Abraham Lincoln as the great president who held that nation together. But thanks to the power of marketing, many if not most Americans would wrongly answer this question:

Is President's Day the national holiday on which we celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln?

True, both were presidents. And true, both were born in February. But it is not true that we celebrate the birthdays of these presidents in a sort of two-for-one federal holiday.
 

Lincoln's Birthday in the States

Life was good when I was in elementary school: I got two days off every February--one for Lincoln's birthday (February 12) and one for Washington's birthday (February 22).

That's because I lived in California, one of many states that, by legislative enactment, set apart Lincoln's birthday as a legal holiday. The Lincoln Log Cabin Almanac--a little booklet I love--was compiled by R. Gerald McMurtry in 1940. It cites the following states as honoring Lincoln's birthday with a state holiday:

California

Nebraska

Colorado

New Jersey

Connecticut

New York

District of Columbia
(I know, it's not a state)

New Mexico

Delaware

North Dakota

Illinois

Ohio

Indiana

Oregon

Kansas

Pennsylvania

Kentucky

South Dakota

Michigan

Tennessee

Minnesota

Utah

Mississippi

Washington

Montana

West Virginia

 

Wyoming

The Almanac also notes that Alaska, then a U.S. territory, also observed Lincoln's birthday as a legal holiday and that Massachusetts observed the day by proclamation of the governor.

Abraham Lincoln calendar
 

Washington's Birthday is a Federal Matter

George Washington's birthday, on the other hand, is a federal holiday. Formerly celebrated on the anniversary of his birth (February 22), the Uniform Holidays Bill, or HR 15951 of 1968, changed the holiday calendar so that many federal holidays, including Washington's birthday, fell on a Monday. This act went into effect in 1971, making three-day weekends rule the day. The day of George's birth was moved to the third Monday in February.

You'll read on many Web sites that President Nixon issued a proclamation in 1971, changing the name of the holiday to "President's Day." Someone reads it on one person's Web site and copies that content onto his or her own site, and so on... That myth has been perpetuated across the Internet. I challenge you, though, to find the source of this so-called proclamation.

The truth is that Nixon issued Executive Order 11582 on February 11, 1971, defining the observance of holidays by government agencies, effective January 1, 1971. The term "President's Day" isn't used at all. Rather, the third Monday of February is called "Washington's Birthday."
 

The Title Five 10.25

Since then, Columbus Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day have become federal holidays. Today, Title 5, subchapter 6103 of the United States Code names the following 10-and-a-quarter legal public federal holidays:

  • New Year's Day
  • MLK's Birthday
  • Washington's Birthday
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Christmas Day
  • And that "one-quarter" holiday: it falls every four years on January 20 (Inauguration Day)

Lincoln isn't on the fed list. In fact, MLK Day bumped Lincoln's birthday from many state holiday calendars.
 

The Marketing Scam

But your calendar says "President's Day," right? Mine, too. The term "President's Day" was a convenient way for calendar makers to acknowledge the February birthdays of Lincoln and Washington without having to sort out which states had formal holidays and which did not.

Commercial outlets and retailers, then, broadened the term to "Presidents Day" (plural) and marketed the heck out of it...slashing prices on fabulous items for the infamous Presidents Day sales across America!


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