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President’s Day

Many calendars list the third Monday of February as Presidents’ Day. Many U.S. states list the holiday as Presidents’ Day. Of course, all of the 3-day retail store sales are called “Presidents’ Day” sales and this vernacular has also been influential in how we reference the holiday.

Historically, Americans began celebrating George Washington’s Birthday just months after his death, long before Congress declared it a federal holiday. It was not until 1879, under President Rutherford B. Hayes, that Washington’s Birthday became a legal holiday, to be observed on his birthday, February 22.

Washington’s birthday was celebrated on February 22 until well into the 20th Century. In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”

Today, George Washington’s Birthday is one of only eleven permanent holidays established by Congress. One of the great traditions followed for decades has been the reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address—which remains an annual event for the Senate to this day.

In a sense, Washington’s birthday helps us reflect on not just the first president but also the founding of our nation, the values, and what Washington calls in his Farewell Address, the “beloved Constitution and union, as received from the Founders.”

Presidents Day

George Washington’s Birthday

Although the federal holiday is held on a Monday (the third Monday of February), George Washington’s birthday is observed on February 22. To complicate matters, Washington was actually born on February 11 in 1731! How can that be?

During Washington’s lifetime, people in Great Britain and America switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar (something most of Europe had done in 1582). As a result of this calendar reform, people born before 1752 were told to add 11 days to their birth dates. Those born between January 1 and March 25, as Washington was, also had to add one year to be in sync with the new calendar. By the time Washington became president in 1789, he celebrated his birthday on February 22 and listed his year of birth as 1732.

Myths About Washington

If you think that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then admitted his wrongdoing by saying to his father, “I cannot tell a lie,” think again. He didn’t say it; he didn’t even chop down the tree! Parson Mason Weems (1759–1825), one of Washington’s biographers, made up the story hoping to demonstrate Washington’s honesty.

See almanac.com