Check your calendar. Odds are, the third Monday in February is listed as Presidents’ Day, a holiday you may know (or assume) to recognize the accomplishments of all past U.S. presidents.
However, the history behind this holiday is a lot more complicated that you might think.
After George Washington died in 1799, his supporters began recognizing his birthday, February 22, as an annual day of remembrance for America’s first president. (At least, those who used the Gregorian calendar did. The Julian calendar said he was born on Feb. 11. England switched over to the Gregorian style in 1752.) Washington’s birthday became a federal holiday for the District of Columbia in 1879 and for the rest of the country in 1885. This was the first federal holiday that honored an individual.
Then in 1968, Congress introduced the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, which hoped to change certain federal holidays from specific dates to designated Mondays, creating more three-day weekends. (Talk about a policy everyone can get behind!) The idea was that more long weekends would make people less likely to skip work.
The bill also wanted to combine Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays into one holiday (some states, like Illinois, already celebrated Lincoln’s birthday, February 12). Illinois Senator Robert McClory proposed this holiday be called “Presidents’ Day.” In 1971, the bill passed, and President Richard Nixon issued an executive order that the third Monday in February was now a holiday.
Here’s the thing though: According to the United States Code, that holiday is technically still called Washington’s Birthday. The name never officially changed to Presidents’ Day. But since federal code permits local governments and private businesses to name federal holidays whatever they want, most states call it Presidents’ Day. Many stores also take advantage of this second name to promote February sales.
Two other commander-in-chiefs celebrated birthdays in February: William Henry Harrison (February 9) and Ronald Reagan (February 6).