Three. Day. Weekend. Few words are sweeter, especially if you’ve forgotten one is in your immediate future. But the reason why I will get to stay up late this coming Sunday is difficult to defend: Monday, February 15, is Presidents Day.
How bogus is this federal holiday? Let us count the ways.
It’s not actually named Presidents Day
The US Office of Personnel Management calls it Washington’s Birthday, which is the name the observance was known by when Rutherford B. Hayes signed the first President’s birthday, February 22, into law in 1879 as a holiday in the District of Columbia.
Virginia wouldn’t let Lincoln get in on the holiday
The 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the Washington’s birthday observance to the third Monday in February. That would create a date closer to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday of February 12 than Washington’s—not an accident, as US Representative Robert McClory of Illinois hoped to change its name to Presidents’ Day when he shepherded the act through the House of Representatives. Virginia, as is often the case, ruined everything. Old Dominion Congressmen Dick Poff and William L. Scott objected to allowing Lincoln to share Washington’s spotlight, so the old name stuck.
No US President was born on Presidents Day
It’s impossible for February 22 to fall on the third Monday of the month. (It can, however, fall on the fourth Monday, as it does this year.) Besides Lincoln, two other Presidents were born in February: Ronald Reagan (February 6) and William Henry Harrison (February 9). The month with the most Presidents’ birthdays is October—Jimmy Carter (1), Hayes (4), Chester Arthur (5), Dwight Eisenhower (14), Teddy Roosevelt (27), and John Adams (30). Would it be the worst idea in the world to move Presidents Day to October, which would open the door to getting rid of Columbus Day? We could use the fourth Monday in February as a celebration of the Miracle on Ice.
The name “Presidents Day” is an invention of advertisers
As C. L. Arbelbide wrote in a crucial 2004 article about Presidents Day, US retailers were keen for three-day weekends, because they provided pegs for sales. Some merchants held sales dedicated to Lincoln and Washington throughout February, which likely had more to do with sales slowing down after after Christmas than love of chief executives. The name “Presidents Day” caught on as a way to snooker consumers: “To the unsuspecting public,” Arbelbide wrote, “the term linking both presidential birthdays seemed to explain the repositioning of the holiday between two high-profile presidential birthdays.”
There’s little agreement on how to spell the day’s name
Presidents Day? President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? You can easily find all these variations. For the purposes of this blog post, I will follow Associated Press style, which aligns with Washingtonian‘s style on “farmers market,” and cast it Presidents Day.
The bogus name makes it seem like we’re celebrating bad Presidents, too
James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson had their chance to get a national holiday named for them, and they blew it.
All that said, I look forward to Presidents Day 2021
Washingtonian staff get that day off. See you next Tuesday!