Why you should stop calling today Presidents' Day

True, many refer to today's national day off as Presidents' Day, but federal law actually lists the holiday as Washington's Birthday. 

AP Photo/The Denver Post, Andy Cross
A painting of George Washington, the first president of the United States, hangs in a hallway at Legacy Academy in Elizabeth, Colo., on Jan. 17, 2012.

We don't care what that mattress sale ad says – there is no such thing as a national Presidents’ Day. It’s a myth, like the story about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and throwing it across the Potomac at Abe Lincoln.

Yes, there is a federal day off on Feb. 20, 2012. But its official name is “Washington’s Birthday.” We’re supposed to celebrate the life and legacy of the Father of Our Country, not the rest of those Mount Rushmore guys. They can get their own holiday. Thomas Jefferson, we’re looking at you.

OK, we know we're swimming upstream here, because every sale ad in the US this morning will talk about special Presidents' Day prices. Other media routinely refer to this as Presidents' Day. It is Presidents' Day in the popular mind. It just isn't Presidents' Day in US law.

Presidents’ Day: five facts you didn’t know about George Washington

Let's look at the record: Washington’s Birthday has been a federal holiday since 1885. For more than 80 years it was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22. This ensured that proponents of, say, William Henry Harrison didn’t try to muscle in on the proceedings.

But by the middle of the 20th century some US lawmakers began to agitate for a more generalized recognition of presidential achievement. In 1968, this desire collided with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, legislation that aimed to shuffle certain US holidays around to create three-day weekends for increased leisure and sellathon purposes.

Early drafts of this law did indeed change Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.This name change was pushed in particular by one of the bill's main proponents, Rep. Robert McClory. As a Republican from Illinois, McClory was interested in stretching the holiday to honor Abraham Lincoln.But the bill stalled in committee. Eventually Rep. McClory dropped his Presidents’ Day proposal to mollify lawmakers from Virginia, who wanted Washington’s prerogatives preserved, according to an account of the legislation in “Prologue”, a magazine published by the US National Archives.

Anyway, if you don’t believe us, look at the US Office of Personnel Management list of 2012 holidays for federal workers. It says nothing about "Presidents' Day". It lists “Washington’s Birthday,” with an explanation. “Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law,” says OPM.

As OPM notes, some states have gone the Presidents’ Day route. Localities hold Presidents’ Day parades, and many retailers have Presidents’ Day sales, too – perhaps they believe their fliers look better with cartoons of numerous presidents. These references have carried the day, so to speak, and most Americans today believe the three-day holiday celebrates all US chief executives.

But we're sticklers. On Feb. 20 we’ll be celebrating all things George Washington. How? We cannot tell a lie – there’s a weed cherry tree behind our garage. We’ll be going after it with a hatchet.

Presidents’ Day: five facts you didn’t know about George Washington

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