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Presidents' Day

Presidents' Day is officially known as Washington's Birthday, and is a holiday to honor the first president, George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732. It is a federal holiday, as well as a state holiday in many states. In 1800, the year after Washington's death, the day became an unofficial day of remembrance. The centennial of his birth was a particularly important day of celebration, and the Washington Monument went under construction in 1848. Congress and President Rutherford B. Hayes made Washington's Birthday a holiday in 1879. Originally only federal offices in Washington D.C. were closed, but this was expanded to all federal offices in 1885. At this time the holiday was observed on Washington's actual birthday.

In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect. It made it so that some holidays, including Washington's Birthday, would be held on Mondays—Washington's Birthday began being held on the third Monday of February, which falls between February 15 and 21, but never on his actual birthday. There had been a provision in the bill to combine Washington and Lincoln's birthdays together for the holiday, but this was eventually dropped. Nonetheless, the day soon became known informally as Presidents' Day, and some believed the new date was chosen to honor both presidents, although that was not the law's intent. By the late-1980s, advertisers began calling it as such, and began pushing for a formal name change. Businesses originally had mainly been closed on the day, but began staying open, and started holding sales. This was particularly true with car dealerships. Many other things tend to function as if the day was a normal day. For example, public transit tends to run as it would if it wasn't a holiday, and colleges and universities tend to hold normal scheduled classes.

There are many ways the day is written and interpreted. When written as "Presidents' Day," it honors more than one president; it may honor all past presidents, as well as the current president—this is the most popular way the day is now observed. It may also honor just some past presidents. It is sometimes spelled as "Presidents Day," without any apostrophe. It is also sometimes spelled as "President's Day." This is a way of referring to a celebration of Washington, or of the office of the Presidency itself. In 1951, the "President's Day National Committee" was created with the purpose of honoring the office of the Presidency. Their original plan was to have the holiday on March 4, the original inauguration date. The day is also sometimes known as "Washington and Lincoln's Birthday."

It is a day of patriotic celebration and remembrance, where some communities hold celebrations, as well as reenactments, and cherry pies are often eaten in Washington's honor. Celebrations also take place at Mount Vernon, and at the George Washington Birthplace Monument. The day has been tied to the military, as the first Purple Heart was given out on the bicentennial of Washington's birth. Since 1862, Washington's Farewell Address has traditionally been read in the U.S. Senate, on or around his birthday or the holiday. Some public schools spend the day teaching about the presidents, with a particular focus on Washington and Lincoln.

How to Observe Presidents' Day

There are many ways the day can be celebrated:

  • See if your community has a celebration for the day.
  • Eat some cherry pie.
  • Read Washington's Farewell Address.
  • Visit the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.
  • Visit Washington's hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, where celebrations are held throughout the month.
  • Visit nearby Mount Vernon.
  • Visit historic sites related to President Lincoln or other presidents.
  • Visit Mt. Rushmore.
  • Try to memorize the names of all the presidents.
  • Read books about past presidents to learn more about them.
  • Watch an American Experience documentary about a president.

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