How Presidents' Day Became a Three-Day Weekend

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Poor Abraham Lincoln. All he did was free the slaves, defeat the Confederacy, and reunite a nation riven by war. And how do we repay him? By putting his face on a worthless coin, bastardizing his likeness to sell used cars, and forcing him to share a birthday with George Washington.

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809; George Washington, February 22, 1732. The national holiday celebrating both occasions is on neither of those days. Instead, both are celebrated annually on the third Monday of February. The official name of this day? Washington’s Birthday.

If you know your history, you know Abraham Lincoln was kind of a sad guy. Can you blame him? Dude couldn’t even enjoy a quiet night at the theater. (Too soon?) Anyway, can you imagine how he’d feel sitting alone in the corner with his consolation cupcake while that spotlight-hogging Washington blew out the candles on some big ice-cream cake? But that’s pretty much what we do every Presidents’ Day…symbolically anyway.

And why? All for a three-day weekend, which when you think about it, is worth it. The school year is long and exhausting. Your three-day weekends are strategically placed throughout the calendar year to prevent burnout. And not by accident. It’s mandated by the federal government.

Complain about Congress all you want, but back in 1968, our legislative branch had the good sense to mandate the concept of the three-day weekend, earning federal employees and schoolchildren a bonus vacation in February. But as a byproduct, they would forever cast the sixteenth president’s actual birthday into obscurity.

Washington’s Birthday

George Washington was kind of an important guy. (By the way, if this is the first time you’re hearing his name, you haven’t earned that extra day off. Spend it in school.) Anyway, this guy was so popular that Americans celebrated his birthday as a holiday while he was still alive. Think about that when your getting validation from the number of Facebook posts on your wall next birthday.

Though Washington was celebrated, America took a while to make it official. The nation’s first commander in chief passed away in 1799, but it was nearly a century before his birthday was recognized as a federal holiday. An 1879 act of Congress dictated that all government offices in Washington, DC, be closed February 22. By 1885, this mandate expanded to include all federal offices. It was the first holiday of its kind in the US, an occasion marking the birthday of a prominent individual. (By the way, if you’re a fan of GW trivia, Washington’s birthdate was originally marked in the now-defunct Julian Calendar as February 11. In the 1750s, the Gregorian Calendar went mainstream, positioning Washington’s modern birthday on the 22nd.)

Whatever calendar you used, Washington’s Birthday was a day of patriotism and revelry, like Independence Day but a lot colder outside. Among the traditions surrounding this occasion, the US Senate holds an annual reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address, soldiers injured in battle are awarded the Purple Heart (which bears Washington’s likeness), and his birthplace of Alexandria, Va., holds a month-long celebration rife with parades, reenactments and historically themed mirth.

Woohoo! Three-Day Weekend!

Though Washington’s birthday was recognized by Congress, it applied only to government employees. By extension, some public schools also treated February 22 as a vacation day. For most people though, Washington’s birthday seemed like a weird reason to skip a weekday of work. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in years when February 22 fell on a weekend, I’m guessing federal employees were pretty bummed out.

In 1968, Congress presented a solution to both of these drawbacks, introducing the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

The premise of this legislation designates annual one-day occasions be placed on a Monday. Every year, this occasion would mark a three-day weekend and an opportunity for people to book flights, rent cars, reserve hotel rooms, and do other things that consumers do when liberated for just a few extra hours in a given month.

As one congressman noted in committee negotiations over the bill, “the primary purpose, as far as I am concerned, is this: It will provide more opportunities for family togetherness and more opportunities for people to visit the great historic sites of our Nation, such as the great Lincoln country of Illinois, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Washington, DC, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and a number of other historic places which we associate with these great national holidays.”

The Act was signed into law in the summer of 1968 and took effect in 1971, simultaneously inventing Columbus Day while pinning Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veterans Day all to their own designated Mondays. (Veteran’s Day would later be redesignated to November 11). The legislation also officially anchored Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday of every February. This date was selected because it is the Monday which falls annually between Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act would also impact the introduction of future extended weekends. Authorized in 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was was designated for the third Monday in January (which falls closest to his birthdate, January 15).

Poor Old Abe

When Congress negotiated the terms of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, everybody won — except Abraham Lincoln. In preliminary discussions, some of his boosters pushed to acknowledge Abe by pitching the name Presidents’ Day. But this provision was scrapped from the final bill, which means the official name of the holiday remains Washington’s Birthday (even though it’s not even actually his birthday).

In fact, Congress resisted the catchall name change because of the fear it would cast undeserved honor on the nation’s lesser presidents. Upon arriving at the official name for the holiday, Rep. William Moore McCulloch (R–Ohio) explained that “it was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary that [naming the day “Presidents’ Day”] would be unwise. Certainly, not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country. There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain Presidents. Moreover, it is probable that the members of one political party would not relish honoring a President from the other political party whether he was in office, no matter how outstanding history may find his leadership.”

We’re pretty sure this sentiment had nothing to do with Richard Nixon being in office at the time. The irony, of course, is that this pointed exclusion of all but Washington ultimately casts the revered Lincoln into the same grab-bag as the nation’s more regrettable presidents, be they James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, or Nixon.

This decision led to ambiguity about the actual name of the holiday. Some states officially adopted the name Presidents’ Day, while others remained true to Washington. A few rogue states stood up for Lincoln. As of today, Montana, Ohio, Utah, and Minnesota all refer to the holiday as some permutation of Washington and Lincoln Day. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alabama disregards Lincoln altogether, instead honoring Thomas Jefferson on this day (in spite of his birth in April).

Official designations aside, most people reflexively call it Presidents’ Day. That’s because this gradually became the name preferred by businesses and advertisers, the biggest beneficiaries of this calendar occasion. Yes, car and mattress commercials get a little more patriotic and whole lot more obnoxious in February. It’s not your imagination.

As an article in the National Archives explains, “Local advertisers morphed both ‘Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday’ and ‘George Washington’s Birthday’ into the sales sound bite ‘Presidents’ Day,’ expanding the traditional three-day sales to begin before Lincoln’s birth date and end after Washington’s February 22 birth. In some instances, advertisers promoted the sales campaign through the entire month of February. To the unsuspecting public, the term linking both presidential birthdays seemed to explain the repositioning of the holiday between two high-profile presidential birthdays.”

It was only a matter of time before calendar-makers complied with the will of retailers, which was obviously more powerful than the decree of Congress. Soon, the name President’s Day had so permeated the public consciousness that it became standard shorthand. If you’re Abraham Lincoln, the compromise isn’t awesome, but it beats being the birthday boy on an occasion called Washington’s Birthday.

Just know that Lincoln sacrificed mightily so you could enjoy those three-day weekends.

School’s Out?

If you’re in college, you probably don’t get this day off anymore, which is a bummer. Then again, when you were in public school, you always suspected this holiday was bunk anyway. But what kind of way is that to treat a day off?

You owe a debt of gratitude to Washington.

On top of leading us to independence, shaping the office of the presidency, and serving as inspiration to all great patriots thereafter, George Washington indirectly helped to invent that most cherished of American traditions: the three-day weekend. Perhaps, in his honor, you should declare your own three-day weekend and spend it visiting a national monument, or at least scoring a great deal on a preowned vehicle.

And please, please, please, while you’re thanking General Washington, don’t forget poor, old Abe.

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