The Truth Behind President’s Day Myths

George Washington

You have the day off from school or work. Shopping for President’s Day bargains is on your mind. But do you have any idea who is responsible for this day of leisure?

It’s President’s Day across the United States. For many people, the holiday means a day off from work or school. For others, it’s a time to go shopping and take advantage of some terrific sales.

President’s Day is actually a federal holiday to pay tribute to George Washington. Over the years, the public has come to perceive it as a day to honor Washington, Abraham Lincoln and all of the men who have served in the White House.

How It All Began

George Washington’s Birthday, or President’s Day as we’ve come to know it today, was first observed in 1796.

It was President Washington’s last full year in office. He turned 65 years old and the nation wanted to honor the “Father of our Country”. People celebrated his February 22 birthday with balls, teas and firing of canons.

After Washington died in 1799, Congress passed a measure encouraging the nation to celebrate February 22 in memory of the first president. Throughout the 1800s, Americans continued to mark the occasion with special events.

Abraham Lincoln Comes Along

Many scholars consider George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to be the greatest presidents in American history. In addition to their leadership abilities, they shared something else in common: a birthday in February.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, and went on to become the 16th president of the United States. He led the country through one of the darkest hours in American history, the Civil War. Lincoln also abolished slavery.

In 1866, a year after Lincoln’s assassination, Congress united for a memorial address on February 12, which would have been his 57th birthday. Lincoln’s birthday became a holiday in many states, but it never became a federal holiday.

A Federal Holiday for George, Not Abe

In 1885, Washington’s Birthday officially became a federal holiday. The occasion was celebrated on February 22 until 1971, when Congress moved the observance to the third Monday in February.

When the date was moved, many people mistakenly believed lawmakers merged Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays to create President’s Day.

There was even a report that Richard Nixon, president at the time, announced that the new President’s Day would honor all U.S. presidents. This is not true.

Section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code officially lists the federal holiday as Washington’s Birthday.

So, no matter what your calendar says or what the store advertisements proclaim, the holiday was and is officially called Washington’s Birthday.