As is the case with so many of our modern traditions, the back story shows how the holiday has evolved into its modern version, and become more than a little different from its original intent.
History.com offers a good, concise history of the holiday:
“Presidents Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. Originally established in 1885 in recognition of Pres. George Washington, it is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. Traditionally celebrated on February 22, Washington’s actual day of birth, the holiday became popularly known as Presidents Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all US presidents past and present.
“Presidents Day never falls on the actual birthday of any American president. Four chief executives, George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan, were born in February, but their birthdays all come either too early or late to coincide with Presidents’ Day.
“While Washington’s Birthday was an unofficial observance for most of the 1800s, it was not until the late 1870s that it became a federal holiday. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, signed into law in 1983, would be the second.
“The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day began in the late 1960s when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Championed by Sen. Robert McClory, of Illinois, this law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. The proposed change was seen by many as a novel way to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers, and it was believed that ensuring holidays always fell on the same weekday would reduce employee absenteeism. While some argued that shifting holidays from their original dates would cheapen their meaning, the bill also had widespread support from both the private sector and labor unions and was seen as a surefire way to bolster retail sales.
“By the mid-1980s Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents Day. This shift had solidified in the early 2000s, by which time as many as half the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents Day. Some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).
“Washington and Lincoln still remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents Day is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. Some lawmakers have objected to this view, arguing that grouping George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together with less successful presidents minimizes their legacies. Congressional measures to restore Washington and Lincoln’s individual birthdays were proposed during the early 2000s, but all failed to gain much attention.”
Whether one celebrates Washington, Lincoln or Daisy Gatson Bates, take a minute this weekend to reflect on some of the good aspects of the lives of those honored on Presidents Day. While no public figure was or is perfect, there are lessons to be learned from how they lived their lives that can apply to current times. Those lessons might just add a little more meaning to the holiday, and to daily life.