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The History of President's Day

Origins Of The Holiday: Washington’s Birthday

Celebrations honoring first President George Washington occurred shortly after his death in 1799. His birthday on February 22nd was a day of remembrance as early as 1800. As such a monumental figure in American history, Washington’s memory was never forgotten in the popular consciousness. Early celebrations include the 1832 centennial celebration of his birth and a national celebration was also held in 1848 when the Washington Monument begin construction.   

While not an official federal holiday at the time regular celebrations on Washington's birthday commonly occurred during the 1800s. It was in 1879 that Washington's Birthday became an officially recognized federal holiday. First proposed by Arkansas Senator  Stephen Wallace Dorsey it was signed into law by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Originally localized to Washington D.C. the holiday would become nationally recognized on the federal level by 1885. It was the first federal holiday to celebrate the life of a single person and would remain as such until Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday in 1983.        

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act

Originally celebrated on February 22nd it was in the 1960s that Washington's Birthday was moved and began to take on the traditions of what we more commonly know as Presidents’ Day. Illinois Senator Robert McClory was a driving force behind the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The idea of the act was to move several federal holidays from a specific date to a specific Monday. This resulted in Washington’s Birthday moving from February 22nd to the third Monday of every February.

The idea was to give workers more guaranteed three day weekends. Despite moving holidays the act was met with popular support due to the ideas it would decrease worker absences, increase retail sales, and guarantee a three day weekend instead of a holiday occurring midweek. The act also include a provision to combine Washington and Lincoln's birthdays into a single holiday called Presidents Day however, this was never officially passed by the federal government due to resistance from representatives from Virginia (Washington’s home state).

Despite arguments about the details the overall idea of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act did pass in 1968 changing the dates of several federal holidays. President Nixon’s executive order officially enacting the law would take effect in 1971.          

President’s Day A Cultural Institution

After the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the holiday of Washington’s Birthday began to take on a more inclusive shift in popular culture. While still officially listed as Washington’s Birthday by the federal government many noted that the new holiday date fell between the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. This lead to both men being honored in popular culture and Presidents’ Day began to take on its modern form. With the three day weekend now in place sales papers proclaiming ‘President’s Day Deals’ soon became widespread.

This cultural shift was well ingrained by the 1980s and by the 2000s half of the states listed Washington’s Birthday as Presidents’ Day on their calendars. The holiday also taken on several local traditions on the state level. Examples of this include Alabama also celebrating the life of President Thomas Jefferson and Arkansas’ celebration of Daisy Gatson Bates a civil rights activist.    

Despite its beginnings as Washington’s Birthday Presidents’ Day has become a holiday to celebrate the lives and achievements of the holders of America’s highest office. Notably the federal government to this day still officially lists the holiday as Washington’s Birthday. However, despite this the cultural and traditional aspects of the holiday have become much more wide reaching.  

Stuyvesant Town

If you happen to have the day off for Present's Day, check out some of the February happenings in NYC for something fun to do on your free Monday.

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