Mr. President, What's In A Name?

Welcome to the country's most confusing holiday

We ran this two years ago today, and since the info within remains accurate, we're offering it up again today. Happy Presidents Day!

Quick, what's today? Presidents Day, the federal holiday that's probably known more for car dealership specials and being the driving force behind schools' winter break than for anything else, right?

But technically, in the eyes of the U.S. government, it's not.

The federal holiday introduced as Washington's Birthday in 1885 is still called Washington's Birthday.

To make matters more confusing, today isn't actually Washington's Birthday, and the holiday now never falls on his real birthday; he was born Feb. 22, 1732 (and even that's not quite true, since the calendar observed by the English colonies switched from the Julian to the Gregorian in 1752).

In 1971, the holiday recognizing his birth was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (yes, that's the actual name). There was talk of a renaming at the same time as the shift, but that never happened.

And that's where the trouble began. 

The aim of the act was to streamline holidays for federal government workers, and turn as many of them as possible into three-day weekends. But the only people bound to observe federal holidays are federal employees. Most states follow along with federal holiday designations, but when it came to Washington's Birthday, many didn't.

Some states went for the shift to third-Monday observance but adopted the idea of a holiday to celebrate all presidents. Because there's no set rule for what to call it, it's variably called Presidents Day and Presidents' Day, and sometimes, incorrectly, President's Day, which makes grammarians twitch.

Some states also kept recognizing Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12, too, though that was never a federal holiday. A recognition of Abe's day remains on the books in some New Jersey municipalities, since unions have long negotiated it as a day off. And some states have weird hybrids, like Washington-Lincoln day.

So really, unless you're a federal employee, whether you have off or not and what you call the day comes down to where you live. In New Jersey, it's Presidents Day.

But don't try to drive that point home with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

As the department's website pointedly says in a footnote to its calendar, "this holiday is designated as 'Washington’s Birthday' in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. 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."

Bit snooty about it, no?

Written by Graelyn Brashear

Kelley February 18, 2013 at 02:51 PM
Geez, article sounds like it was written by someone with a chip on their shoulder. Besides that, good article!
KC February 19, 2013 at 04:22 AM
In our quest and zeal to serve all we serve none. Political correctness and employer greed have rendered this once revered holiday little more than a sales gimmick.
Spooner February 19, 2013 at 05:10 PM
KC- just scratching the surface when it comes to greed, and it's twin hand maidens: insecurity and corruption with a big (M)orality halo over our elected officials and what should be our democratic watchdog institutions(the press and the media). They have all have so fine tuned it, while living inside their bubbles patting each other on the back. . .


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