Why do we honor the Presidents’ Day federal holiday?

While it may seem like just another day off work, the Presidents’ Day federal holiday …

Statue of George Washington, Photo by sue hughes on Unsplash

While it may seem like just another day off work, the Presidents’ Day federal holiday actually has historical significance. Not only does it honor current and past presidents, but the holiday also began thanks to the late, great George Washington.

And federally? It’s still considered our first president’s big day. 

Curious about how the Presidents’ Day federal holiday came to be?

Here’s a look at why we celebrate it:

Celebrating the First U.S. President 

Members of the Washington Crossing Re-enactors Society portray Gen. George Washington and his troops during a Dec. 9 dress rehearsal for the 60th Annual Crossing of the Delaware re-enactment scheduled for Christmas day at Washington Crossing Historic Park, Pa. Each December, thousands of people gather on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania banks of the Delaware River to watch the re-enactment of George Washington's 1776 river crossing during the American Revolution.
(Photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Morris, 99th Readiness Division)

Presidents’ Day was originally celebrated to honor George Washington on February 22, his birthday. The very first observance was in 1800, the year after George Washington died. 

His birthday was celebrated around the country while he was alive to honor the most important person in American history at the time. Because he was so beloved, the practice continued after his death. 

Although unofficially observed during much of the 1800s, Washington’s birthday became a federal holiday in 1879. It was recognized only in D.C. until 1885 when it became a national holiday and the first established day to honor an individual American.

How significant was this?

In 1885, the only other nationally-recognized federal bank holidays were Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving!

In 1932, the Purple Heart was reinstated on Feb. 22 in honor of the General that established it — the one and only George Washington.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act

Maj. Gen. Mark Palzer, commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 99th Readiness Division (left), prepares to fire a musket with help from Army Reserve Ambassador Larry Rubini during the 67th annual re-enactment of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware River Dec.8 at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. This event commemorates Washington’s actual crossing Dec. 25-26, 1776, when he led several thousand troops across the icy river to conduct a surprise attack on enemy forces in Trenton.
(Photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Morris, 99th Readiness Division)

Back in 1969, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February. This came about via the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that was signed into law. The idea behind the law was to give national workers more three-day weekends.

The law was first observed in 1971. At this time, the official name of “Presidents’ Day” made its debut. 

This same law also moved Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day (which was moved back to Nov. 11 in 1980) to create additional three-day weekends. 

The Official Shift to Presidents’ Day 

Laws can make some pretty impressive changes — like moving a U.S. president’s “birthday” celebration to a whole different day. 

According to The White House website: We celebrate Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday of February each year—the result of the 1968 law mandating that a number of federal holidays occur on Mondays. Incidentally, the third Monday in February can never fall on the 22nd, meaning the federal holiday will never land on Washington’s actual birth date.” 

Moving Washington’s birthday placed it between his actual birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. By the 2000s, more than half of the states recognized the holiday as “Presidents’ Day.” But the official Federal Holiday is still Washington’s birthday and intended to honor him alone.

So, depending on who you ask, you may get different answers for what the observance is actually called.

Celebrating George Washington’s Birthday

George Washington's home on Mount Vernon
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

In addition to weekend sales, many local municipalities hold celebratory concerts, organized run/walks, historical reenactments, and other events. If you live near historical hot spots like Washington, D.C., be sure to check your local happenings! 

A few fun ideas to celebrate the day: 

  • See history come alive – Visit Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, for free.
  • Explore Alexandria, VAThe city hosts a month-long celebration with more than 15 events including a parade, cherry challenge, and a ball!
  • Check out state attractions – Many museums and national sites will offer special programs and celebrations.

Oh, and in case you forgot: Birthdays call for cake. Enjoy this recipe and bake Martha Washington’s Great Cake. Here’s to celebrating the one and only George Washington! 

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Feature image courtesy of Unsplash

The editorial team at Sandboxx.

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