By congressional decree, Monday is George Washington’s Birthday. Never mind that for a century and half the country recognized Feb. 22 as the first president’s birthday. By law it’s now the third Monday in February. But now, thanks to Congress, he has to share his birthday cake with a lot of other former presidents on what is generally known as Presidents’ Day.
Washington’s birthday wasn’t the only holiday Congress adjusted. In the late 1960s Congress moved several national holidays to Mondays to create three day weekends. Memorial Day, for decades celebrated on May 30, now falls on the last Monday in May. Columbus Day, for political correctness sometimes called Explorers Day, occurs on the second Monday in October.
When the day honoring Martin Luther King became a national holiday his birthday celebration was moved to a Monday in January. Since most of us just had a few days off in December, an August date would have been preferable.
Congress even tinkered with Veterans Day, once a solemn day to commemorate the end of World War I. It had been observed for years as Armistice Day on Nov. 11, the day that war ended. Congress moved it to a Monday as well but opposition from patriotic groups forced its return to Nov. 11.
Washington’s birthday was moved to a Monday sandwiched in between Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, and that of Washington. But the third Monday in February can never fall on either president’s birthday. Never mind. School kids and the millions of workers relish the day off regardless of the date.
Some states, northern ones of course, still honor Lincoln’s birthday as a legal holiday. On those rare occasions when Feb. 12 falls on a Friday, Washington’s birthday occurs the next Monday. Government workers in the Lincoln states then enjoy a four day weekend instead of the usual three.
In reality, few Americans even think about Washington on that special Monday. They are more likely relaxing at a campground, skiing, sailing, at an amusement park, or a casino. Others take advantage of those magnificent “Presidents’ Day” sales extravaganzas.
Those pre-Christmas discounts on Black Friday or Cyber Monday are matched or beaten by the loss leaders advertised as Presidents’ Day sales. One dollar television sets or rock-bottom prices for other electronics fill the advertisements as the holiday approaches.
But the ad men and women can’t agree on the punctuation of that February holiday that they are pushing. Check the ads in this paper. One major metropolitan daily, which shall remain anonymous, has carried ads on the same page that referred to the day as Presidents Day, President’s Day and Presidents’ Day. The apostrophe seems to have them stymied.
So far they haven’t called it Presidence Day, Precedence Day or Precedents Day. Actually, a day to honor the great ground-breaking decisions of the Supreme Court might be a good idea if it weren’t for the controversies such a day would create.
In fact, Congress didn’t rename the holiday. It’s still George Washington’s Birthday. But check your calendar. “Presidents’ Day” is more likely to be the designation placed on that third Monday in February.
So, this year on Feb. 17 let’s pay homage to Zachary, Millard, Franklin [Pierce and Roosevelt] and Benjamin [Harrison, not Franklin]. A switch of one vote among the Supreme Court justices and this might have been Al’s day. Mitt needed a bit more.
No matter what it’s called, the third Monday in February is a welcome break in the daily grind. We thank all the presidents for that.
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona and an occasional contributor to Stephens Media.