Tomorrow, February 21, we celebrate Presidents’ Day, or do we? As you will see, the holiday is replete with quirks.
According to Wikipedia, the moniker, “Presidents’ Day,” is actually a colloquialism. The official name of the federal holiday is “Washington’s Birthday.” According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution pursuant to the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” of 1971 it is celebrated on the third Monday of February, which, depending on the particular year, can be anywhere between the 15th and the 21st. There is no mail. Federal and state offices, the courts, the DMV, banks and financial markets are all closed. Most public schools are closed. Some even take the entire week off as a winter recess.
As many of you know, GW was actually born on February 22, so the holiday never falls on his actual birthday. Except, the year GW was born, 1731, the British Empire, including the American Colonies, was still using the Old Style Julian calendar, which was eleven days behind the modern Gregorian calendar, which became the standard in 1752. So, technically, GW was born on February 11, 1732 (Old Style). Confused? Join the club. Read on; it gets worse.
Congress first promulgated the federal holiday honoring GW in 1879. Fittingly, GW was the first and only President to be so honored. It was celebrated on February 22. In 1951 a gentleman named Harold Fischer formed a committee with the apt name of the “President’s Day National Committee,” of which he became the National Executive Director, for the purpose of honoring, not a particular president, but the office, itself. There was sentiment for designating March 4 as the date since that was the original presidential inauguration date, and, in point of fact, several states’ did designate that date as Presidents Day.
Finally, in 1971 Congress clarified matters with the abovementioned “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” It wanted to promulgate a holiday that would honor both GW and Abraham Lincoln, whom most historians recognize (as do I) as our two best presidents. The holiday was moved to the third Monday in February, which, as I have said, falls in between AL’s (February 12) and GW’s (February 22) birthdays. It has remained there ever since. People liked it because it provided a built-in three-day weekend, and retailers liked it because customers could spend the extra day off shopping in their stores.
Still confused? Almost done, but there’s more. For example:
1. Today, the holiday is widely viewed as a plural (Presidents’ Day) to honor all presidents, both past and president, not only AL and GW.
2. The day is not a universal holiday, and it does not have a universal name in all states.
3. States that do observe the holiday recognize over a dozen variations, such as “President’s Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” “George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday,” “Lincoln/Washington/Presidents Day,” “George Washington’s Birthday,” and “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” (who?), among others.
4. Eight states do not observe the holiday at all.
5. Other variations:
a. Massachusetts celebrates “Presidents Day” on May 29 in honor of four specific presidents. Quiz question #1. Can you name them? Three are easy. They were born in the state and were well-accomplished, aside from being president. The fourth, who was more obscure, was born in a neighboring state, but served as MA governor before becoming president. Kudos if you can name all four. See answer below.
b. New Mexico celebrates the holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
c. Georgia celebrates the day on Christmas Eve.
d. Indiana also celebrates it on Christmas Eve, or the previous workday.
e. GW’s adopted city of Alexandria, VA holds celebrations throughout the entire month of February, including what is billed as the nation’s “longest-running and largest George Washington Birthday parade.”
f. The city of Eustis, FL boasts a “GeorgeFest” celebration, which dates back to 1902.
Other quiz questions
2. Which popular food is traditionally consumed on this day?
3. Which medal did GW create for the “common soldier?”
I cannot conclude this blog without commenting on the “cancel culture” movement, which has, to a large extent, been taking over our lives. In particular, personally, I find the movement to wipe out the legacies of past presidents, such as GW, AL, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others to be ill-advised, distasteful, misguided, and just plain wrong. Those who would do so are demonstrating a severe ignorance of our history and are pursuing a radical political agenda that is not shared by the vast majority of Americans. We should fight back and not allow it to go on.
These individuals were heroes. They helped forge this nation. No one is saying they were perfect. No one is. Everyone has flaws. Yes, many of them owned slaves, fought against indigenous peoples, or did something else objectionable to some present-day persons when viewed in retrospect. However, it is important to recognize that they were a product of their times. It is a historical fact, for instance, that before the Civil War it was very common to own slaves, even in the northern states. Even some Blacks owned slaves. We cannot and should not apply our present-day standards and mores to people who lived in anther time.
Quiz answers: 1) John Adams, John Quincy Adams, JFK, and Calvin Coolidge
2) Cherry pie, for obvious reasons.
3) The Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
PS. Daisy Gatson Bates was a civil rights activist who played a leading role in the integration of Arkansas’ public schools in the late 1950s.