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What is Presidents’ Day? (Part 2 of What Happened to George Washington’s Birthday?)

Whose big idea was it anyway, to make a Monday holiday out of George Washington’s birthday. It helps to consider who would benefit the most from a three-day weekend.

For openers, it was believed that three-day holiday weekends for federal employees would reduce worker absenteeism. Now add in the encouragement of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Travel Organizations, and the National Retail Federation.

Imagine all that leisure time for families—time to run and play, mini-vacations and cultural excursions, spending money the whole time—in lovely three-day increments. It would be a boost to the economy (and too bad about history, tradition and sentiment).

Right away four federal holidays were exempted from the Monday overhaul: New Year’s Day on January 1, Independence Day on July 4, Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, and Christmas Day on December 25.

Congress Steps in It

Congress decided that Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and *Veterans Day were holidays they could shift to Monday. Despite strong opposition to moving these historical holidays to Monday, Congress prevailed. Some lawmakers had wanted to change Washington’s Birthday to “Presidents’ Day,” but that idea was strongly resisted by other lawmakers, who were otherwise agreeable to changing Washington’s “birthday.”

There was only one Father of Our Country and he was George Washington, and George Washington’s Birthday was going to be celebrated on the third Monday of February, decreed the new law. President Lyndon Johnson signed the approved Act (H.R. 15951) on June 28, 1968, which stated the holiday changes would go in to effect January 1, 1971. And that was that, almost.

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

Meanwhile, down in Texas the 61st Legislature passed a law (May 14, 1969) stating that on January 1, 1971, Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated as Presidents’ Day on the third Monday of February as an official state holiday.

On February 10, 1971, President Richard Nixon issued Executive Order 115, a standard reminder, which announced the new federal holiday calendar as passed by Congress in 1968, because a new official holiday was coming up in that same month.

And that’s where the story of George Washington’s Birthday as a rearranged federal holiday of convenience unfortunately takes a bizarre turn into Presidents Day. Nixon wrongly has been credited, blamed, excoriated, and slandered for proclaiming the new holiday as Presidents’ Day. It’s not true, despite the plethora of publications that claim he did. He did not.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, and the Nixon Library in California, no such proclamation exists. Nixon DID in another executive order around the same time, recognize the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, but did not suggest, refer to, or use the term Presidents’ Day or attempt to combine Lincoln’s birthday with the new Monday holiday honoring Washington’s Birthday in any way, shape, or form.

Enter the Co-conspirators

Enter now the public schools, the press, advertisers, and calendar makers. School systems eventually latched onto the concept of Presidents Day as a simplified historical catch-all. A careless press sold the idea to advertisers, who eagerly latched onto a new slant in advertising. Why the whole month of February was a virtual red, white and blue advertising blow-out the candles.

Calendar makers, eager and enthusiastic to be up-to-date, adopted Presidents’ Day as current usage. And the general public overall, usually half a step behind, thought Presidents’ Day was the logical linking of two beloved presidents’ birthday, with (maybe) all the rest of the Presidents thrown in for good measure.

Celebrated for more than two hundred years, Washington’s Birthday all but disappeared.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton confused things even more when he really did issue a Presidential Proclamation, declaring the third Monday in February to be Presidents’ Day. Now here’s the part where Washington’s Birthday gets all tangled up with Nixon again.

The Plot Thickens

Turn to the newspaper pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Humor columnist Michael Storey routinely employed his cat “Otus” in fictional conversations, which regular ADG readers knew were spoofs. Bill Clinton’s Presidents Day Proclamation annoyed Storey, so he relied once again on a fictional Otus interview to skewer the President.

Otus the Cat claimed that it was Nixon who’d created the presidential proclamation changing the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.

Another newspaper writer, Richard Benedetto of USA Today, while surfing the internet (apparently) for information about Washington’s Birthday and Presidents’ Day, found the Storey humor column and quoted from it. Unaware (or oblivious) it seems, that he’d quoted Otus the Cat from a fictional interview.

(Forgive me if I repeat myself. It was fiction.)

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is a fine regional newspaper with admirable circulation numbers, but USA Today is a national newspaper, whose circulation was 2,274,621 on Dec.31, 1999—just a few weeks before Richard Benedetto published his column quoting Otus the Cat.

That darn cat. Benedetto, informed of his mistake, sent the USA Today librarians on a search party to find the material he’d quoted, but they never found Otus. (I don’t understand why the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette didn’t sent the page with the column on it to Benedetto.) USA Today never corrected or retracted the story, and once it was on the internet, the lie was gone like a bag of feathers in the wind.

George WashingtonTo honor George Washington on his birthday takes nothing away from Abraham Lincoln or any other president. The federal holiday IS called George Washington’s Birthday, if not actually celebrated on February 22.

Can’t We All Just Get Along

So how do we restore the honor to George Washington? When the most visible celebration of George Washington’s Birthday is a double-truck ad selling mattresses in the newspaper, that’s a sure sign we’ve lost sight of the man we’re celebrating.

We need to celebrate his birthday again—this year is his 275th—by telling his story to our youngsters, in our homes, libraries, and schools. I think it’s all right to use the third Monday in February to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday. (As for Texas—and other states—where Presidents’ Day is the legal holiday … we’ll just have to work on getting that changed.)

Here are some ideas to get us started: What kind of education prepared Washington to be a leader? When Washington was a child, who were his heroes? What attributes are associated with him? How many things bear Washington’s name or face? (Washington’s image is considered public property.)

Use food. There a link between the brain and the stomach. What kind of cake would George have eaten on his birthday, and was birthday cake a custom then? Did he have a favorite dessert? What kind of rations did he and his soldiers eat during the War of Independence? What foods were grown at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate?

Oh, the ideas go on and on. Do you have a good idea for celebrating George Washington’s Birthday? Share it with The Daily Flag by writing to us in the comment box.

*In 1978 Veterans Day was removed from the Monday holiday list and restored to the traditional, historical date, November 11th—originally Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the Great War, otherwise known as World War 1.

3 thoughts on “What is Presidents’ Day? (Part 2 of What Happened to George Washington’s Birthday?)

  1. Hi Deborah–

    Interesting history. My brother used to get his birthday off of school more often than not because his birthday was the same as George’s.

    “What foods were grown at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate?” We were there this summer with our kids. It was interesting to learn that George’s innovation was the selling of grain as a crop as opposed to the common tobacco. The garden (an understatement) is a little of a walk from the main buildings, but well worth it.

    But looking out on the chosen vista of a such a great man is its own treat. Mr. Motivation might like that! Did you know that the opposite side of the river is protected from development to preserve the view from Mount Vernon?

  2. Thanks Dave! We’ve never been to Mount Vernon, but everyone says it is beautiful and peaceful. I had no idea that the land on the other side of the Potomac was protected also.

  3. […] *Changed by Congress through the National Holiday Act of 1971 (a benefit for federal workers). See also “What Happened to George Washington’s Birthday?” Part 1 and Part 2. […]

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