So what exactly is this holiday we celebrate, in the loosest sense of that word, on Monday? It is popularly, widely and wrongly called Presidents Day, but the certainty of that designation is belied by the fact that sometimes it is Presidents’ plural and sometimes President’s singular. It is neither. It is Washington’s Birthday, although unless the holiday falls on Feb. 22 it isn’t really that either.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management says it is Washington’s Birthday and since it is a federal holiday and this is a federal agency talking, OPM has the last word — not that anybody is listening.
George Washington’s birth date was celebrated unofficially almost from his presidency, but didn’t become official — and federal — until 1885. In 1968, a year when a lot of strange things happened, it was decided to move some federal holidays to Mondays to create three-day weekends. Starting in 1971, the father of our country got the third Monday in February.
The question inevitably arose: But what about Abraham Lincoln? His birthday is Feb. 12, and while never a federal holiday, it was observed in some states. Giving federal workers another holiday probably struck the Nixon administration as way too French by way of leisure, so it was decided that the day would remain Washington’s Birthday, but also celebrate Abraham Lincoln.
That kind of ambiguity resolved itself into the amorphous Presidents’ Day. If that were truly what the public wanted, we should celebrate a separate president each year, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, etc. until we cycle through all 42 of them. (Grover Cleveland gets only a single observance.) But about the time we got to William Henry Harrison — only 31 days in office — people would ask, “Why are we doing this?”
Americans don’t need to be reminded that we’ve had some perfectly dreadful presidents, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the remarkable individual who was there at the creation — the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, the first president.
Happy Washington’s Birthday.