Many kids spend the third Monday of February sleeping in late and enjoying a day off from school. With an extended weekend in their future, it’s a perfect time to explain to your children the full—and slightly complicated—history of Presidents Day.
Does Anyone Know the Date?
Presidents Day has a confusing history, thanks in part to some shenanigans with the calendar that occurred in the mid-1700s. Originally, Presidents Day was celebrated as George Washington’s birthday on February 22. Except that, technically, Washington wasn’t born on February 22, and therein lies the first confusing fact. Here’s the story behind Washington’s changing date of birth:
Had you asked the young George Washington on what date he was born, he would have told you he was born on February 11, 1731, because, at the time, England was one of the few countries still using the Julian calendar, which was created by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and adopted throughout most of the known world.
The Julian calendar worked well for a long time, but was gradually replaced throughout Europe by the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582 and was a more accurate method of keeping track of the passing days. England, however, was not a predominantly Catholic nation and British kings saw no reason to use a calendar designed by a pope. Consequently, England and its colonies still used the old Julian calendar.
By the 1700s, the difference in dates between the Julian and Gregorian calendars was pretty significant. Add to that the English custom of beginning a new year on March 25, the start of the British civil year, and things were getting out of hand.
Finally, in 1752, England and its American colony made the switch to the Gregorian calendar, dropping 11 days from September of that year. Had you been alive in 1752, September 2 would have been followed by September 14. Plus, the start of a new year was moved from March 25 to January 1. So, while George Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731, in September of 1752, his date of birth jumped to February 22, 1732.
As our first president, George Washington served two terms, from 1789 to 1797. Although he was extremely popular with voters in our young nation, Washington declined to run for a third term. Just before leaving office, he published his 32-page farewell address in a Philadelphia newspaper, which offered political advice to his fellow citizens. The address is still remembered to this very day as it has been read aloud in the U.S. Senate every year since 1862 on Washington’s birthday.
After Washington’s death in 1799, his birthday on February 22 started being celebrated as a kind of unofficial holiday. Every year, Americans would observe Washington’s birthday by commemorating his achievements as a leader. It’s important to remember that throughout the first half of the 1800s, many people were still living who fondly remembered Washington’s presidency. For example, when construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848, anyone over 60 would have had some memories of when George Washington was president.
By 1879, the annual celebration of Washington’s birth became so popular that President Rutherford B. Hayes signed its observation into law, making February 22 a federal holiday. Because the date was close to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, just 10 days before on February 12, Americans started honoring Lincoln along with Washington on February 22.
In 1971, the federal government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established certain holidays be officially celebrated on Mondays to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees. The passing of this law moved Washington’s birthday celebration to the third Monday of February. The act did not change the name of the holiday to Presidents Day; however, after a few years, U.S. states began referring to this holiday as Presidents Day to give it a more general name and honor all who have served as president.
This year, Presidents Day is celebrated on Monday, February 18. Though this holiday originally started as honoring only Washington, and while we should never forget the precedent set by our very first national leader, it’s important that we reflect on the many achievements of all our presidents, each of whom has contributed to making America what it is today.
Presidents Day is a good time to learn something new and interesting about American history and the historical figures that helped shape our great nation.