Presidents Day 2010: facts about a holiday with an identity crisis

Presidents Day 2010 is not observed the same way – or even the same day – in all states. Which presidents get top billing depends on where you live.

Seth Perlman/AP
Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Fritz Klein, speaks to children during a Lincoln 201 birthday celebration at the Old Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 12. A portrait of George Washington (r.) is shown in the background.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Washington’s Birthday.

Shh! Don’t tell any auto dealers, school boards, or mattress salesmen, but today isn’t officially Presidents’ Day across the United States. The more accurate term would be “Washington’s Birthday,” according to the federal statute designating the third Monday in February in honor of the father of our country, who was born on Feb. 22, 1732. So, why the confusion?

In 1968, an attempt to officially change the day to Presidents’ Day, to celebrate both Abraham Lincoln (who was born Feb. 12, 1809) and Washington on the same day, died in a congressional committee. (Lincoln’s birthday is observed, but it’s never been designated an official federal holiday.) Since that failed effort, 12 states have designated an official Presidents Day.

As far as schoolkids are concerned, as long as they get the day off, you can call it anything you want.

In honor of the day, here are some fun facts about Presid – err, you know what we mean.

1. Blame it on Nixon. In 1971, President Richard Nixon proclaimed one federal holiday, Presidents' Day, honoring all past presidents. Nixon mistakenly thought that a presidential proclamation carried the same longevity as an executive order. Since 1971, the common term has been "President's Day." (No word on why the apostrophe got moved.)

2. Virginians accept no substitute. Washington’s home state is celebrating George Washington Day today. And that’s final.

3. Massachusetts honors the home crowd. Despite the fact that Washington’s Birthday is the official holiday in the Bay State, every year Massachusetts issues a proclamation honoring the four presidents who hailed from the commonwealth: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John Kennedy.

4. Washington forced to accept double-billing. In Arkansas, Washington has to share his day with Daisy Gatson Bates, who worked to end segregation in the 1950s and '60s.

5. Louisiana Purchase Day? In Alabama, President’s Day honors both Washington and his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. (Jefferson's birthday actually is in April.)

6. In New Mexico, you’re already three months late. The Land of Enchantment gives its government employees the day after Thanksgiving off for President's Day. (Well, it is the biggest day for sales of the whole year.)


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