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Presidents' Day - What Does it Mean?

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USA, South Dakota, Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore National Monument, close-up
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To some, the observance of Presidents' Day in the United States goes very much unnoticed. Local newspapers splash ads of “President’s Day Sales!” and many get the day off from work. But have you ever stopped to think about this important day of recognition?

History

Presidents' Day is intended (for some) to honor all the American presidents, but most significantly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. According to the Gregorian or "New Style" calendar that is most commonly used today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. But according to the Julian or "Old Style" calendar that was used in England until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. Back in the 1790s, Americans were split - some celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

When Abraham Lincoln became president and helped reshape our country, it was believed he, too, should have a special day of recognition. Tricky thing was that Lincoln’s birthday fell on February 12th. Prior to 1968, having two presidential birthdays so close together didn't seem to bother anyone. February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

In 1968, things changed when the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays. They voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington's Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971, and as a result, Washington's Birthday holiday was changed to the third Monday in February. But not all Americans were happy with the new law. There was some concern that Washington's identity would be lost since the third Monday in February would never fall on his actual birthday. There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday "Presidents' Day", but the idea didn't go anywhere since some believed not all presidents deserved a special recognition.

Even though Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Some states, like California, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday "President's Day." From that point forward, the term “Presidents' Day” became a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or week-long sales.

In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington's Birthday be "officially" called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.

Today, President’s Day is well accepted and celebrated. Some communities still observe the original holidays of Washington and Lincoln, and many parks actually stage reenactments and pageants in their honor. The National Park Service also features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, as well as other important leaders.

Where to Visit

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument in VA, holds an annual birthday celebration on President's Day and on his actual birthday. Visitors can enjoy special colonial activities held throughout the day. Mount Vernon (now part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway) also honors George Washington with a birthday celebration weekend and an annual fee-free day (the third Monday of February).

Annual activities to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday include: a February 12th wreath laying ceremony at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in KY; Lincoln Day, held each year on the Sunday closest to February 12th at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in IN; and special birthday programs at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in IL. Each year, other special events are added, so be sure to check park calendars before you travel.

The National Park Service also maintains a number of sites that commemorate other past presidents, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. You may also want to visit inspiring places like Mount Rushmore or military parks such as Gettysburg for a fun-filled visit.

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