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History of Presidents Day
Presidents Day originated as the celebration of the birthday of George Washington, the first president of the country. This day was known as “Washington’s Birthday,” and it was informally observed in many communities across the country from the year following his death in 1799.
The holiday was unofficially observed for most of the 1800s. Then, in 1879, it was signed into law by President Rutherford B. Hayes as a federal holiday and the first holiday to celebrate the life of an individual.
In the late 1960s, Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The act shifted several federal holidays from specific dates to predetermined Mondays. It was thought that moving the holidays to Monday would give employees additional three-day weekends and reduce employee absenteeism.
The act included a provision to combine Washington’s birthday, which falls on February 22, with Lincoln’s birthday, which falls on February 12. Thus, though the holiday is still written as “Washington’s Birthday” in federal law, it soon was popularly understood to be a celebration of Washington, Lincoln, and all other citizens who served as President of the United States – thus evolving to become “Presidents Day.”
To add further complexity to the name of the holiday, each state that made it a legal state holiday chose a variation on the name that best suited local history – naming the day after Washington, Lincoln, or actually stating the name “Presidents Day” in the Act.
Traditions and celebrations
When Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday were individual celebrations, people spent time reflecting on the contributions of the country’s historic leaders and honoring them in various ways. However, the change in name to “Presidents Day”, the moving of the holiday to create a long weekend for leisure, and the strategies of marketers have meant that the holiday is now almost completely given over to travel, family vacations, and shopping.
Nevertheless, in many school districts across the country, students spend time learning about the history of the United States and the social responsibilities that come with being a citizen of the country during the month of February.