Happy Presidents’ Day! Let’s do that same thing I did last time again!
What Is This Holiday?
Every year, on the third Monday in February, the President will emerge from his burrow and, if he sees his shadow or also if he does not see his shadow, there’ll be six more years of political gridlock.
This is the U.S. version, of course. In Mexico, it’s called Dia de los Presidentes, where they commemorate those politicians they’ve lost to QAnon conspiracy theories.
Also, the Post Office is closed.
So is it Presidents’ Day or President’s Day? Well, the apostrophie placement–if any–varies, so there’s no wrong way to punctuate Pr’e’side’nts D’ay. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say there’s no right way.
Seeing as how Presidents’ Day doesn’t exist.
That’s right, Presidents’ Day is just a collective figment of our imaginations. I mean, all holidays are a collective figment of our imaginations, but this one especially.
In reality, the holiday we all call “Presidents Day” is officially Washington’s Birthday, and it was originally celebrated on February 22nd (the day George Washington was born), until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971. At this point, Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February, which–according to my research–is not how birthdays work.
Don’t worry–they had a good reason.
A Good Reason
Naturally, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act itself summarizes the reason:
To provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and for other purposes.
Clears it up, right? Admittedly, why they should provide for such a thing is a little vague, and “for other purposes” sounds…a little nefarious.
But if you need things spelled out more explicitly: the Congress passed a law to shuffle a bunch of holidays around so that there’d be more three-day weekends. The nefarious “other purposes,” by the way, were evidently a covert plot to also celebrate Lincoln on Washington’s birthday (more on that later). Hey, remember when Congress used to do stuff?
The ultimate motivation here was that the move would be good for business (less absenteeism, more retail sales), with the minor drawback of cheapening the underlying holidays. But really…what better way to honor politicians than to make their commemoration revolve around your own self-interest?
I say “politicians” plural because, along with the date change, the waters got muddied with regard to who the holiday commemorates. Congress debated renaming the holiday to “Presidents Day” and honoring both Washington and Lincoln (who was also not born on the third Monday in February), but ultimately rejected that idea.
Well, They Tried
Rejecting that idea made little difference. The public effectively renamed it to Presidents’ Day anyway, and by the “public,” I mean “retailers.”
The states didn’t help, either, when half of them chose the name “Presidents’ Day” for their state calendars and also went ahead and used it to honor people who were not George Washington, such as, again, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson (whose birthday is also not the third Monday in February), and civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates (who was also not born on the third Monday in February or a president). Ultimately, it seems to boil down to states celebrating whoever it is they feel like celebrating, especially if they happen to come from said states.
Incidentally, going into this I didn’t think I’d really have many opportunities for cynicism without examining the actual lives of any of the associated presidents. How about that?
These days, the holiday is commonly understood as honoring either Washington and Lincoln, or all presidents collectively.
This was something that some lawmakers specifically wanted to avoid, including Representative William Moore McCulloch, who summed up his views as follows:
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.
There has evidently also been some concern that lumping all the Presidents together might “minimize the legacy” of Washington and Lincoln, but I think that with the benefit of what we know now, we can say that’s not really a conc–
Notably, Congress later took another stab at trying to oust all those other, less iconic presidents with the “Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act of 2001”:
Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act of 2001 - States that (the legal public holiday) Washington’s Birthday shall be referred to solely as such: (1) by all U.S. entities and officials; and (2) on all federally funded publications. Requests that the President issue an annual proclamation recognizing President Lincoln’s birthday.
But it died in a subcommittee without ever getting voted on.
Now there’s the Congress we know and