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How Did Presidents Day Become a Holiday?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on February 17, 2014 5:55 AM

Celebrating Presidents Day as a holiday did not come about until around the 20th century, but its roots go back to our first president.

How did we come to celebrate the third Monday in February as "Presidents Day"?

The Celebration of Washington's Birthday

Although Presidents Day is now recognized as honoring the birthdays of President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln, the holiday started as just a celebration of Washington's birthday.

Depending on which calendar system you ascribed to (Julian or Gregorian) in the time of the Founding Fathers, Washington's birthday fell either on February 11 or February 22, according to an article in Time. To celebrate his birth, early Americans celebrated on February 22 with large D.C. galas and of course ... drinking.

However, the celebration wasn't written into federal law until 1880, making Washington the first person to be honored with a federal holiday. (Although he had been dead a good deal longer, the person (mis)credited with discovering our nation -- Christopher Columbus -- wouldn't get his own federal holiday until 1934.)

The Debate Over 'Presidents Day'

By the 20th century, ideas had begun to shift around the celebration of Washington's birthday. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act into law in 1968, shifting Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Washington's Birthday to Mondays in order to lengthen weekends. According to The American Presidency Project, LBJ hoped this shift would allow Americans more time to travel and be with their families.

This Act, now inscribed in law under Title 5 Section 6013 of the United States Code, didn't change the name of the holiday to "Presidents Day," and the federal government still recognizes the holiday only as "Washington's Birthday."

The advent of "Presidents Day" was really pushed by business. According to Time, businesses in Texas and California used the power of marketing to promote "Presidents Day" as a way to promote sales during the month of February. Some states were already celebrating Lincoln's birthday on February 12, so stores took the opportunity to have "Presidents Day" anytime between the two presidents' birth celebrations.

Through a combination of capitalism and overlapping state holidays, the holiday we commonly know as "Presidents Day" came into being.

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