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How Washington’s National Birthday Became Presidents Day

Written by
Rob Brittain
Published on
February 12, 2021 at 11:40:00 PM PST February 12, 2021 at 11:40:00 PM PSTth, February 12, 2021 at 11:40:00 PM PST

The day that was originally set aside to honor our nation’s first president George Washington has now become a federal holiday that honors Washington, Lincoln and, some might say, all of America’s historical leaders. The history of the transition from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day spans more than 200 years. Learn how Presidents Day came to be.


An Unofficial Celebration Becomes Official

After George Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, his birthday (February 22) soon emerged as an unofficial, national day of remembrance for our nation’s first president. Though often heralded with patriotism, Washington’s Birthday celebration remained unofficial for more than 70 years. 


Then, in the late 1870s, Arkansas Senator Stephen Wallace Dorsey proposed legislation to declare Washington’s Birthday as an official holiday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the Washington Birthday legislation, which made it a law. At first, Washington’s Birthday celebration was only observed in the District of Columbia. However, by 1885, the celebration had grown to include the entire nation. 


Changing the Date of Washington’s National Birthday Celebration

For more than 80 years, Americans set aside February 22 as a national day of celebration and remembrance for President George Washington. Then, in the late 1960s, Congress debated a piece of legislation that proposed shifting the dates when several national holidays (Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day) were observed. The general idea was to shift those four federal holidays from their actual calendar dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. Supporters of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act argued that moving the federal holidays to Mondays would create a consistent series of three-day weekends that would be mutually beneficial for workers and retailers. The proposal was also lauded as a way to reduce holiday-related absenteeism in the workplace.


Also included in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was a proposal to combine the celebration of George Washington’s February 22 birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday (which had not yet been a national holiday) into a single federal holiday. Illinois Senator Robert McClory, a strong supporter of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, also suggested that Washington and Lincoln’s combined birthday celebration be renamed as Presidents Day.


However, Congressional representatives from Virginia, the home state of George Washington, failed to agree with combining the celebration of the two presidents, as well as with renaming the holiday to Presidents Day. Because of the Virginia lawmakers’ dissent, both the proposal to combine the Washington and Lincoln birthday celebrations and the proposal to rename the combined holiday as Presidents Day was abandoned.


The Uniform Monday Holiday Act’s primary idea about moving Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day* to Mondays did live on, and it was approved by Congress in 1968. Then, in 1971, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order that officially moved the celebration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February.


Public Misunderstanding and Marketing Savvy Give Birth to Presidents Day

Despite the third Monday in February being officially designated by both Congress and President Nixon as Washington’s Birthday, the general public quickly noted that the newly-moved holiday fell between Lincoln’s February 12th birthday and Washington’s February 22nd birthday. Following that train of thought, many Americans began to attribute the third Monday in February as a day to celebrate both Washington and Lincoln. Retailers and marketers then followed suit and rebranded Washington’s Birthday as “Presidents Day.” Shortly after the start of the 21st century, there was talk among lawmakers about potentially creating individual holidays for both Washington and Lincoln. However, those talks failed to generate any legislation.


Today, although Washington and Lincoln remain the two historical figures that are most closely associated with Presidents Day, the general public has come to associate Presidents Day with the celebration of all presidents, both past and present. In addition, some states and local municipalities have chosen to add celebrations of local historical figures to the Presidents Day festivities.


At Carrot Top Industries, we will join Americans across the country as we raise our American flag on Presidents Day. In doing so, we will honor the lives and his legacies of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and all of the nation’s leaders.


If you are in need of an American flag or patriotic decorations to complement your Presidents Day celebration, we invite you to contact our Customer Care Professionals at 800-628-3524, shop online or send us your product needs by email or through our Contact Our Team online form.


*In 1980, and in response to public demand, Veterans Day returned to its original, celebrated date of November 11.

Online References: Encyclopedia Britannica, History.com


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