Why does myth of US Presidents Day persist?

The official name for the holiday celebrated Feb. 17, 2014, is Washington’s Birthday. Here are three theories as to why the name Presidents Day endures.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama smiles as he stands in front of a portrait of President George Washington, during a photo opportunity with Haitian President Michel Martelly in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Washington.

When is Presidents Day 2014? The correct answer to that question is “never.” When it comes to federal holidays, there is no such thing as Presidents Day. We’ve been saying this for years, but shockingly, the charade continues.

The official name for the holiday celebrated Feb. 17, 2014, is Washington’s Birthday. If you don’t believe us, look at the Office of Personnel Management’s list of 2014 holidays for federal workers.

There it is, Washington’s Birthday, right between Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and Memorial Day. There are an asterisk and a helpful note at the bottom of the page, which says that the holiday in question is specified as Washington’s Birthday under Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code.

“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,” OPM states.

Long story short: Washington’s Birthday has been a US holiday since 1886. In the late 1960s, Congress scrambled around a bunch of federal holidays to make three-day weekends, and Washington’s Birthday got thrown into that mix. The Illinois congressional delegation thought it would be a great idea to honor Abe Lincoln by expanding the name to Presidents Day. But Virginia lawmakers blocked the move to protect the prerogatives of The Father of Our Country. That’s where things still stand today.

As we noted, we’ve written more fully about all this in the past, so we’re not going to dwell on that at this time. Instead, we’ll float theories as to why the myth of Presidents Day continues.

States’ rights. As OPM notes, states can do what they wish, and some do call it Presidents Day. (Many also follow the federal lead and don’t.) Perhaps they want to stretch the day to get a little recognition for their own native sons. New York’s Martin Van Buren, come on down!

Corporate conspiracy. Maybe advertisers believe that consumers are more likely to get out and spend on a holiday called Presidents Day, so that’s what they call it on all their fliers. For all his virtues, George Washington seems formal and chilly: Would he approve of you buying that mattress? Even if it’s on sale?

Richard Nixon. There’s an urban legend that Richard Nixon started Presidents Day in the early 1970s. He issued a holiday proclamation turning Washington’s Birthday into a more inclusive event honoring all US chief executives, including him, according to this rumor.

That’s not true: His proclamation clearly referred to Washington’s Birthday. The debunking site Snopes.com has the full story. But what if Nixon started that rumor himself? He might have planted it knowing full well it would get repeated in the years ahead and he might get some Presidents Day recognition after all.

Yes, that’s kind of a back flip, but Nixon was a shrewd guy. And look at his own presidential library: This year it’s having a celebration of Presidents Day, not Washington’s Birthday, complete with actors playing Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Not that we’re complaining. We’d go if we could: First 100 guests get a free slice of cherry pie.

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