Officially known as Washington’s Birthday (even though it isn’t actually on Washington’s birthday!), Presidents Day is an American federal holiday that takes place on the third Monday in February. This year, that is February 20th. There has long been some confusion as to which President is honored on this day, though, and the actual name of the holiday can differ from state to state. Some call it President’s Day (note the singular possessive apostrophe), while others refer to it as Washington and Lincoln Day. Adding to the confusion, the holiday has also been moved around and doesn’t even fall on any President’s actual birthday on a consistent basis. Below are more details on how the holiday came about and its evolution over the years, as well as some fascinating facts about America’s first President:
Washington’s Birthday: The Federal Government first designated February 22 as a holiday to honor America’s first President, George Washington, back in 1879 for government offices in D.C., which was expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices across the U.S. But Washington’s actual date of birth is February 11, 1731, so why the 22nd? Well, the British Empire, including its colonies in America, operated on the Julian calendar at the time of his birth, having not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar that Catholic countries had switched to back in 1582. Consequently, Julian calendar dates were about 11 days behind the Gregorian ones due to leap year differences. The British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 and since then, Americans born prior to that have had their birthdays recognized on the day it would have fallen under the Gregorian calendar, making Washington’s birthday February 22.
Lincoln’s Birthday: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday-February 12, 1809- was never a federal holiday. However, the 16th President’s birthday was observed by many individual states. The earliest known observance of the date occurred in Buffalo, New York, in either 1873 or 1874. Julius Francis, a Buffalo druggist, made it his life’s mission to honor the slain president. He repeatedly petitioned Congress to establish Lincoln’s birthday as a legal holiday but to this day, it is only officially observed at the state level in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, California, Missouri, and New York on February 12. The day is marked by traditional wreath-laying ceremonies at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The latter has been the site of a ceremony ever since the Memorial was dedicated in 1922. In other states, Lincoln’s birthday is not celebrated separately, as a stand-alone holiday. In some states, Lincoln’s Birthday is combined with a celebration of President George Washington’s birthday on the third Monday in February. Nearly half of U.S. state governments have officially renamed their Washington’s Birthday observances as “Presidents’ Day”, “Washington and Lincoln Day”, or other such designations.
Washington and Another Person: In Alabama, the day is specifically designated in recognition of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the country’s third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. It is the only state in the country to specifically honor Washington and Jefferson, whose birthday is on April 13th. In Arkansas, the third Monday in February honors George Washington and also marks the life of Daisy Gatson Bates, a female civil rights leader who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.
The Uniform Holidays Bill: In 1968, legislation was enacted that affected several federal holidays. One of these was Washington’s Birthday, the observation of which was shifted to the third Monday in February each year whether or not it fell on the 22nd. This act, which took effect in 1971, was designed to simplify the yearly calendar of holidays and give federal employees some standard three-day weekends in the process.
President’s Day: Washington’s Birthday became known as President’s Day because of a fake newspaper article spoofing President Richard Nixon, which said he wanted to reinvent Washington’s Birthday as a day for “celebrating all Presidents, including myself.” As crazy as it might seem, the fake “President’s Day” holiday name stuck and that is what nearly everyone now calls it! For most people, it is considered a holiday to honor both Washington and Lincoln, as well as all the other men who have served as president.
Washington is the Only Sitting President to Actually go into Battle: According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, “On September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. president to personally lead troops in the field when he led the militia on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford.”
George Washington Will Always be the Highest Ranking Officer in the U.S. Military: In 1976 Washington was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military—ever. According to Air Force Magazine, when Washington died, he was a lieutenant general. But as the centuries passed, this three-star rank did not seem commensurate with what he had accomplished. After all, Washington did more than defeat the British in battle. Along the way he established the framework for how American soldiers should organize themselves, how they should behave, and how they should relate to civilian leaders. Almost every big decision he made set a precedent. He was the father of the U.S. military as well as the U.S. itself. So, a law was passed to make Washington the highest ranking U.S. officer of all time: General of the Armies of the United States. Nobody will ever outrank him.
George Washington Was a Non-President Commander in Chief for a Brief Time: In 1798, when fears were growing of a French invasion, Washington was named (by John Adams) commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, even though he wasn’t president anymore. Apparently, this was a strategy to help recruiting, as Washington’s name was very well-known. He only served in an advisory capacity.
Washington is One of Only Two Presidents that Signed the U.S. Constitution: George Washington and James Madison were the only future presidents who signed the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, America’s third President, was in France during the Convention, where he served as the U.S. minister. John Adams, President number two, was serving as the U.S. minister to Great Britain during the Constitutional Convention and did not attend either.
Washington was almost “His Highness”: There was initially a question as to how to address the President. The Senate proposed that he be addressed as “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties.” Both the House of Representatives and the Senate compromised on the use of “President of the United States.”
Washington Never Chopped Down a Cherry Tree: Parson Weems, who wrote a myth-filled biography of Washington shortly after he died, made up the cherry tree story. The Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia identifies that book, The Life of Washington, as “the point of origin for many long-held myths about Washington.”
George Washington Owned A Profitable Whiskey Distillery: Whiskey was one of Washington’s most important business ventures at Mount Vernon. At peak production in 1799, the distillery used five stills and a boiler and produced eleven thousand gallons of whiskey. With sales of $7,500 that year, it was perhaps the country’s largest distillery.
Washington’s Agricultural Contributions: Washington is credited with introducing the concept of crop rotation to America. He also bred the first mules in the country, using the King of Spain’s donkeys to breed with his own horses.
Washington Created His Own Dog Breed: George Washington loved dogs and fox hunting, so it was only natural for him to want to breed the perfect foxhound. Because of his work, he is occasionally called the father of the American Foxhound. He owned 36 of these pups, and gave them unusually mushy names like Sweet Lips, Tipsy, Venus, and True Love. (Sources: Snopes, Smithsonian Magazine, Wikipedia, History on the Net)