How Presidents Day Reminds Us of the Ever-Changing World Around Us, and the Shifting Views of History

Today the United States celebrates Presidents Day.  It’s a holiday to celebrate…?  The answer to that question depends on who you ask, because Presidents Day has been an ever-changing saga, and one that is a good reminder of how the world around us, and our understanding of it, is constantly evolving.

George Washington, the first President of the U.S., died in 1799.  The year after his death, the country celebrated a day of remembrance for Washington on his birthday, February 22nd.  This day of remembrance took place on his birthday for the next 76 years, at which time February 22nd was officially recognized as a Federal Holiday to celebrate the life and legacy of George Washington.

george washington

George Washington, first President of the United States

Ninety-four years later, in 1971, in an effort to improve morale of U.S. workers, the United States Federal Government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.  The objective of the act was to shift specific dates of celebration (like February 22 for Washington’s birthday) to preset Monday’s (e.g. the 3rd Monday in February) in order to create more 3-day weekends for people to enjoy.

With the move of the holiday from February 22 to the third Monday in February, people mistakenly believed that the holiday was now meant to honor both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday was February 12th.  Then advertisers added to the confusion by creating a 3-day sales event for Presidents Day.

presidents day sale

Within a decade many came to know the holiday that once celebrated the first President’s birthday as Presidents Day.  By the year 2000, half the states in the U.S. had changed their official holiday calendar from Washington’s birthday to Presidents Day.

Today, it’s commonly believed that Presidents Day is a holiday to celebrate the lives and legacies of all U.S. Presidents.  Some still hold to the belief that the holiday celebrates Lincoln and Washington, two of America’s greatest leaders.  But the United States Federal Government still regards the Presidents Day holiday as the remembrance of George Washington’s birthday, despite the fact that the holiday no longer falls on his actual birthday of February 22nd.

The journey of Washington’s birthday holiday is a great reminder that life and history are always evolving.  What we take to be true today, may in fact, over time, shift to take on new meaning.  It’s also a great reminder that we need to keep an open mind about what we “know” since it’s often the case that we don’t have all the facts and information needed to make an informed decision.  You many only be aware of today’s version of the story.

Make the most of the Presidents Day sales.  Celebrate all of the Presidents, or just a few of your favorites.  Celebrate Abraham Lincoln.  But don’t forget to remember the one for whom it’s all about.  Happy birthday, George!

washington monument


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