What’s in a name: The truth about Presidents Day

The statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
The statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. –AP

You may have noticed—there’s some discrepancy with how people spell the holiday that takes place on the third Monday in February.

Is it Presidents Day? Or maybe Presidents’ Day? Or even President’s Day?

The big sales advertised on the holiday tend to make their own choice of punctuation in the flyers, tv ads, and banners that pop up everywhere.

But it turns out where an apostrophe should, or shouldn’t go, may be towards the bottom of the list of common confusions around the holiday. Because in fact, “Washington’s Birthday’’ is the official name of the federal holiday, according to the National Archives.

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(Though if you are one of those really concerned about apostrophe placement, the AP Stylebook says no apostrophe is the correct way to go: Presidents Day.)

But the common misconception about Washington’s Birthday doesn’t stop there.

George Washington’s actual birthday is February 22, 1732, and the National Archives says Americans began celebrating his real birthday before it was ever officially declared a holiday. It was not until his 100th birthday that Congress established a joint committee to organize festivities for the celebration. For his 130th birthday, Congress, Supreme Court justices, and other high-ranking individuals in the Cabinet and Army and Navy listened to the Secretary of State read Washington’s Farewell Address out loud, an annual event that still carries on for the Senate.

It was not until January 31, 1879 that Congress designated February 22 as a federal holiday for employees in the District of Columbia, according to the National Archives.

But still, Washington’s Birthday was not designatedthe way it is today.

It was not until Congress reformed federal holidays in 1968 by designating legal, public holidays on Mondays that Washington’s Birthday got switched to the third Monday in February every year. The purpose of the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill was to create greater uniformity with some of the annual, public holidays. The National Archives says that Congress hoped three-day weekends would benefit the country economically and “spiritually.’’ Other Monday holidays that found homes from the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill include Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day.

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So how did Washington’s Birthday become commonly referred to as Presidents Day? Well, the National Archives says that during the debate of the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, there was a suggestion that the holiday could be called “Presidents’ Day’’ to celebrate both Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. Lincoln’s Birthday is February 12, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Congress eventually decided to stick with just “Washington’s Birthday,’’ but went with moving the date to the third Monday in February.

C.L. Arbelbide, a historian and author, wrote in her article titled, “By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday,’’ that despite Congress’ decision, there was no uniform agreement among the states for the holiday’s title. Most states moved their celebrations to correspond with the federal holiday, but “a few’’ went their own way, according to Arbelbide.

One state was Texas, which renamed the state holiday as “President’s Day’’ in 1971, according to Arbelbide. The state’s calendar lists the holiday as “Presidents’ Day.’’

Virginia, the home-state of the first president, lists the holiday as “George Washington Day.’’

But some states chose to honor the birthdays of the 1st President and the 16th President separately. Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, is a state holiday in Illinois and Missouri. State offices are closed to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in Illinois, a spokesperson for the Illinois state house told Boston.com.

 

Massachusetts is one of the states that went along with the name chose by Congress.

When you’re a kid, the spelling, correct name, or the reason for a holiday doesn’t matter, so long as you still get that extra day off from school. So regardless of what your state may choose to call the third Monday in February, you can still thank George and Abe for having birthdays that provide a brief respite in the long slog between the holiday season and spring (in the form of a three-day weekend).

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