The History of Presidents’ Day

This is the true significance behind Presidents’ Day: The Origin of Presidents’ Day: Following President George Washington’s death in 1799, his February 22, Birthday became a perennial day of remembrance. But it was not until the late 1870s that this became a federal holiday.

The holiday initially only applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the whole country. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays—Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving—and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, signed into law in 1983, would be the second.

THE UNIFORM MONDAY HOLIDAY ACT: The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day began in the late 1960s, when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays.

The proposed change created more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers, an attempt reducing employee absenteeism.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also combined the celebration of Washington’s Birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s, which fell on the proximate date of February 12. Washington’s Birthday was then shifted from the fixed date of February 22 to the third Monday of February. Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day were also moved from their traditionally designated dates.

Veterans’ Day later returned to its original November 11th date as a result of widespread criticism. Marketers soon jumped at the opportunity to play up the three-day weekend with sales, and “Presidents’ Day” bargains were advertised at stores around the country. By the mid-1980s Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents’ Day.

CELEBRATIONS AND TRADITIONS: Presidents’ Day is traditionally viewed as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance. The holiday gained special meaning during the Great Depression, when portraits of George Washington often graced the front pages of newspapers and magazines every February 22.

In 1932 the date was used to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military decoration originally created by George Washington to honor soldiers killed or wounded while serving in the armed forces.

A number of states also require that their public schools spend the days leading up to Presidents’ Day teaching students about the accomplishments of the presidents, often with a focus on the lives of Washington and Lincoln.

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