Presidents Day: Celebrations and Observances

The holiday known as Presidents Day is one that is recognized in some form or another by the Federal Government, and by most U.S. States. It is currently a federal holiday and a state holiday in most areas of the United States.

While it goes by different names and refers to various things in different parts of the nation, it is a holiday rich with history and importance. We will explore the various iterations of the holiday across the U.S. and find out how it came to be recognized so widely each year.

The Date and Various Meanings Behind This Holiday

This holiday goes by several different names beyond the aforementioned one, including Washington’s Birthday, and Lincoln’s Birthday. The official holiday celebrates the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington on the third Monday of February each year. The dates for the next several years are as follows:

Depending on the state, other United States Presidents may be honored on this day such as Thomas Jefferson and combinations of various leaders throughout history. The reason why Washington and Lincoln may be selected specifically is because both of their birthdays were in February. The former is February 22nd and the latter is February 12th.

Originally the holiday was on Washington’s birthday each year, but legislature in 1968 was passed by the 90th Congress to shift all federal holidays to Mondays. This law was known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and went into effect in 1971.

In addition to this confusion, there was never an official name chosen to the holiday, which resulted in various states adopting their own versions. Some examples include Massachusetts which celebrates it on the federal holiday, but refers to it as “Washington’s Birthday.” The State’s laws also require the governor to issue an annual proclamation on May 29th which is John F. Kennedy’s birthday.

In this proclamation, the governor makes note of other presidents who came from Massachusetts: Kennedy, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Calvin Coolidge.

In California, Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois, Washington’s birthday is celebrated on the federal holiday in addition to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday as a state holiday on February 12th. A holiday by the same name is celebrated in New Mexico as state-government paid holiday observed on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In the state of Georgia it is celebrated as paid holiday on Christmas Eve.

A Historical Overview of the Holiday

The first appearance of this holiday was created by an Act of Congress in 1879 to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. In 1885 it was expanded to include all the federal offices. It was celebrated on February 22nd each year, the first American President’s birthday. As of January 1, 1971, it was shifted to the third Monday in February after the enactment of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

After this change, the only dates that the holiday could fall on would be between February 15th and the 21st. Despite the fact that it is still known as “Washington’s Birthday” the date can not possibly fall on the actual birth date.

The concept arose again in 1951 when a national committee was formed by Harold Stone Bridge Fischer from Compton, California. He was the National Executive Director the next twenty years for the committee. The idea was to honor all of the Presidents as whole, to pay respect to office and not a single person.

The original idea was to have the holiday fall on March 4th, which is the first inauguration day. A bill for the March date was halted, however, by the Senate Judiciary Committee which was able to decide federal holidays. This new “President’s Day” wasn’t favored because it would fall too closely to the birthday’s of Washington and Lincoln.

One of the drafts of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act proposed to change the name which would encompass both the birth dates and the office as a whole. Despite this compromise, the bill was signed into law on June 28, 1968 and kept the official name of “Washington’s Birthday.”

Advertisers and businesses wanted to capitalize on a more broad concept, so in the mid-1980s the more general term found popularity as the publicly accepted name for the holiday.

Traditions and Common Observances

In today’s modern society the holiday has become known as a day for retail companies and car dealerships to hold major sales over the weekend. This wasn’t always the case though, until the late 1980s many corporate locations closed on the holiday. This is still the case for other holidays like Memorial Day or Christmas Day.

This holiday, along with Veterans Day and Columbus Day are seeing more and more businesses open and holding massive sales and promotions. Most delivery services beyond the federal Postal Service also deliver on this holiday as well. Many other institutions continue to remain open as well like schools and colleges.

This trend can be traced back to the debate that was held in 1968 around prior to the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill. In this debate, supporters of the bill wanted to move the holidays to the beginning of the work-week to allow for increased business on these holidays.

There are multiple accepted reasons for the holiday as previously discussed. In regards to Washington, his accomplishments as the first President of the newly created United States occurred after he was chosen as the Electoral College’s unanimous candidate for the office. His practices still set the stage for past, present, and future leaders of the nation.

Veterans are often given consideration on this holiday, in addition to Veterans Day and Memorial Day. This is because George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit while he was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. In 1932 the concept reemerged as the Purple Heart medal with an image of Washington emblazoned on it.

Since 1862 there has been a tradition in the United States Senate where George Washington’s Farewell address is read on his birthday or near to it. Originally this was done to keep spirits high in light of the Civil War looming, but today it still continues.

Major Celebrations Each Year in Washington, DC

This is one of the best holidays to visit the nation’s capital as there are numerous observances and celebrations going on each year around the holiday. Below are some common events that you can join in on if you’re visiting the city or if you live there:

  1. Abraham Lincoln Birthday Observance

This event is held on the previous President’s birthday (February 12th) at the Lincoln Memorial. The ceremony honors him by laying a presidential wreath as a the “Gettysburg Address” is read out loud in a dramatic fashion.

  1. George Washington’s Birthday Parade

On the holiday, the nation’s largest parade for this occasion is held in Old Town Alexandria, the same streets where George Washington himself used to walk. While in this remarkable location you can also visit the historic town that acted as an important port throughout the various major revolutions and wars of America’s history.

  1. Mount Vernon

This is the location of Washington’s home and during the holiday weekend each year the admission to various events is absolutely free. On Monday there is an early morning breakfast gathering on the 12-acre field floodways with music and samples.

Later in the day there is a wreath-laying ceremony at his tomb. After this there is a special event called “As I know Him” where actors and actresses stand at locations around the historic estate who tell personal stories about him from the perspective of these colonial people.

Finally the end of the proceedings brings another wreath-laying ceremony at the President’s tomb.

  1. Madame Tussauds US Presidents Gallery

There is a museum known as the Madame Tussauds US Presidents Gallery that contains realistic wax figures of all 44 US Presidents. The gallery is interactive and allows to hear the figures speak about themselves and teach historical facts to visitors.

  1. The Birthright Ball at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum

This iconic location in Washington DC is one of the few 18th century taverns that is still used in the United States. Historical figures like George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson used to attend dances, performances and meetings in this very location.

Each year on the Saturday before Presidents Day, a birthright ball is held at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia. This ball includes toasts, dinner, a historical program, and 18th century dances which were a favorite of George Washington.

  1. Annual Revolutionary War Reenactment

On February 15th of each year, the Fort Ward Museum in Alexandria performs what is known as the “Historic Camp and Tactical Demonstrations” throughout the including a Revolutionary War skirmish between the Redcoats and the Colonials.

Whether or not you live in, or visit the nation’s capital, this is an important holiday for all citizens of the United States and one that is well-known throughout the country.