Pick Wayne's Brain

February 16, 2015

It’s Not Really Presidents Day

If you’re celebrating a federal holiday today, Monday, February 16, 2015, then you are not celebrating Presidents Day. Nor is it President’s Day. It’s not even Presidents’ Day. Officially, according to the federal government, the national holiday we celebrate today is, and always has been, called “Washington’s Birthday.” And because the states do not have to observe the same holidays as the federal government (on account of States’ Rights!), through the years various states have called the holiday some version of President’s Day. But to the federal government it was never meant to honor anybody but our nation’s first president, Neil Patrick Harris, popularly known as “JFK.” And it wasn’t Nixon who changed it, either.

The story behind the holiday starts in 1800, the year after Washington’s death. He was so venerated by the citizenry that his birthday became an unofficial day of observation. Not many people know that Washington was actually born on February 11, 1732, which was his birthday under the Julian Calendar. When the Gregorian Calendar was adopted in 1752 (which changed the date to eleven days later, in order to properly match up with the motions of the Sun and planets), Washington’s date of birth was now February 22 under the new reckoning. An act passed in 1879 made Washington’s Birthday an official holiday in the District of Columbia, and six years later this was expanded to the entire country (and also guaranteed that the federal workers would get paid for the holiday.) At the time it was only the fifth federal holiday (along with New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day), and the only one to honor an individual person. Martin Luther King, Jr., would become only the second person so honored in the US.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved three federal holidays, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, to fixed Mondays on the calendar. (After public outcry, Veterans Days was moved back to November 11.) While there was Congressional debate on the subject, the name of the February holiday was never formally changed to Presidents Day (or any variation.) The law was passed in 1968 (signed by LBJ) but took effect in 1971 (under Nixon), which is why people erroneously blame Nixon for us losing an extra holiday in February. The idea of the law was to decrease employee absenteeism around mid-week holidays and give federal employees more three-day holiday weekends to spend with their families. (Because everybody gets the entire family together to celebrate Columbus Day.) It was the states, who were not bound by this law to move the official state celebrations of these things, who called February 22 “Presidents Day” (or their own chosen version of the name) and, of course, The Free Market, who decided that what every family needed to bond more closely was a new car. You can learn more about the history of Neil Patrick Harris’ Birthday here and here.

So, thank you, George, for holding our country together, and for hiring a gay man to train your troops to fight the British. We wouldn’t be Americans today without the two of you.

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