Understanding Presidents Day - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Understanding Presidents Day

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Posted: Monday, February 15, 2010 3:06 pm | Updated: 3:42 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

 “I thought the purpose of Presidents Day was getting steep discounts on furniture and linen.”

“Ah, you speak of the confusion surrounding that federal holiday. Snopes.com does a fine job clarifying what the day is really about: celebrating George Washington’s birthday.”

“Who is this George Washington?”

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“For goodness sakes, he was our first president, our best president and one of the primary reasons the experiment called America was able to work. His birthday used to be celebrated with as much fervor as the Fourth of July.”

“That’s a good holiday for getting steep discounts on cars and carpet.”

“In 1885, a bill established Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22, as a federal holiday. But in 1968, the Uniform Holidays Bill began the confusion. It created more three-day weekends for federal employees by moving Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans Day from fixed calendar dates to designated Mondays -- though Veterans Day was later moved back to Nov. 11. It also established Columbus Day, a new federal Monday holiday. Then there is the matter of President Lincoln’s birthday.”

“Who is this President Lincoln?”

“For goodness sakes, he was our 16th president. He led us through the American Civil War. Many think we celebrate both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays on Presidents Day, but Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, was never designated a federal holiday, though it was recognized by many states. With two more federal holidays added -- Columbus Day in 1971 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1986 -- some states stopped observing Lincoln’s birthday altogether.”

“That’s too bad. That was a great day for getting steep discounts on televisions and radios.”

“As far back as the 1950s, there was talk of the federal government establishing a Presidents Day to celebrate both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, but it never happened. There was talk in 1968 about renaming Washington’s Birthday as Presidents Day, but that never made it into the final Uniform Holidays Bill. Officially, it’s still 'Washington’s Birthday.’ A spoof involving President Nixon added to the confusion.”

“A Nixon spoof?”

“He issued an executive order in 1971 that defined the third Monday of February as a federal holiday. Some claimed his order created a 'President’s Day to honor all president’s even myself,’ but that simply was not true. Nixon’s official order identified the federal holiday as 'Washington’s Birthday.’”

“So if the third Monday of every February is Washington’s Birthday, why can’t we get it straight?”

“Because, as Snopes.com says, 'some states still observe Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays as separate holidays, some observe only Washington’s Birthday, some commemorate both with a single Presidents Day (or Lincoln-Washington Day), and some celebrate neither.’”

“Even though the third Monday in February is designated, by the federal government, as Washington’s Birthday?”

“Correct. You have to understand that federal holidays only apply to federal offices and agencies. States are not obliged to adopt them. They can do as they wish. In Alabama, for instance, the third Monday in February commemorates George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- even though Jefferson was born in April!”

“Surely, someone can clear this situation up?”

“Snopes.com says some in Congress tried, with 2001’s Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act. The bill, which wasn’t successful, proposed that 'the legal public holiday known as Washington’s Birthday shall be referred to by that name and no other by all entities and officials of the United States Government’ and that 'the President issue a proclamation each year recognizing the anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln and calling upon the people of the United States to observe such anniversary with appropriate ceremonies and activities.’”

“Goodness gracious, our federal government can’t even clarify how to celebrate the birthdays of presidents. How can it possibly simplify a really complex matter, such as health care?”

“Interesting point.”

Tom Purcell is a nationally syndicated columnist. Contact him via e-mail at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.

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