On this coming Monday, car dealerships will run cringe-worthy TV ads, post offices will close, department stores will advertise blowout sales, and overworked high school students everywhere will get to sleep in. But why?
Depending on where you look, you’ll get a different answer. Many would say it’s thanks to Presidents Day, while others would refer to President’s Day or Presidents’ Day. A Google search will reveal significant debate; however, the truth is that each spelling holds its own connotative advantages and disadvantages.
“President’s Day” clearly honors a single president, which is almost always George Washington. “Presidents’ Day” is often used to celebrate Washington and Abraham Lincoln, although it is ambiguous enough that it could refer to any number of presidents, or all presidents as a whole. Meanwhile, “Presidents Day” focuses on the fact that the day honors the presidents, but the day itself does not belong to them.
State governments are equally divided on the issue. Twenty-four states have designated the third Monday in February as an official state holiday, with eleven using “Presidents’ Day,” nine using “President’s Day,” and the remaining four using “Presidents Day.”
California, meanwhile, apparently wants no part of this debate; according to California state code, this day is an official state holiday known only as “The third Monday in February.” The remaining states either have no such state holiday or use a different name, such as “George Washington Day,” “Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday,” or “George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday.” Utah state code calls this holiday “Washington and Lincoln Day.”
With the general populous in disagreement and state governments just as disorganized, the only remaining authority is clearly the federal government.
From no less authority than the United States federal government, the third Monday in February is officially designated as… *drumroll* Washington’s Birthday. As it turns out, Presidents’ Day isn’t even a federal holiday in the United States.
First established as a holiday in 1879, Washington’s Birthday affected all government offices in Washington, D.C. Six years later, it was expanded to include all federal offices regardless of location, making it an official federal holiday.
Although originally celebrated on the date of Washington’s actual birthday, Washington’s Birthday was later moved to the third Monday of February. This change was effected by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which moved five federal holidays from a fixed date to a fixed day of the week. This increased the number of three-day weekends, giving workers a longer uninterrupted break and minimizing lost productivity.
However, this standardization came with an unintended quirk. Because the day of the week is fixed instead of the date, Washington’s Birthday can be celebrated anywhere between February 15 and 21. George Washington was born on February 22, 1732.
As many astute readers may have noticed, 22 is not between 15 and 21. As it happens, Washington’s Birthday is never actually celebrated on the date of that president’s birth. In fact, there isn’t a single president who was born between February 15 and 21, although Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. The other two U.S. presidents with February birthdays are Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison, who died just 30 days and 12 hours after taking the oath of office.
So what actually happens on the third Monday in February? Even if nobody can agree on the name, one thing is for sure: the zany car dealership ads aren’t going to disappoint.