How Did Presidents Day Become a Holiday?

By Arin E. Berkson, J.D. on February 16, 2014 | Last updated on January 19, 2023

This post was updated on January 19, 2023.

Presidents Day is celebrated in the United States with a three-day weekend on the third Monday in February, but it hasn’t always been that way. The holiday began unofficially during President George Washington’s lifetime and continued after his death as a celebration of the first president on his February 22nd birthday.

So, how did the national celebration of George Washington’s birthday come to be known as "Presidents Day"?

Washington's Birthday Becomes a National Holiday

Historical records tell us that George Washington did not enjoy making a big deal out of his birthday, but his fellow Americans sure did. Unofficial celebrations of Washington’s birthday began during his presidency when there were exclusive galas, public parades, and people in the streets all celebrating Washington. The recognition of Washington’s birthday continued as a day of remembrance after his death in 1799.

The observation of Washington’s Birthday every February 22 became official in 1879 when Congress deemed it a federal holiday for U.S. government employees living in the District of Columbia. Washington’s birthday become a national holiday in 1885. With this, he became the first individual in American history to be honored with his own holiday, an honor he retained for almost a century. Columbus Day wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday until 1971. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

The Debate Over Presidents Day

Washington’s Birthday was observed on February 22 for many years. Then, in 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to create more three-day weekends for federal employees. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law in 1968, stating that the shift to Monday holidays would allow Americans more time to travel and be with their families.

Following the enactment of the law in 1971, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Washington's Birthday moved from their original dates to Mondays. (However, in 1975, Veterans Day moved back to November 11 to maintain the commemoration of Armistice Day.)

The congressional debate on the act included a proposal to change the name of the holiday known as Washington’s Birthday to “Presidents Day.” Proponents of the name change believed that the holiday should honor all U.S. Presidents, or at least also honor Abraham Lincoln, the 16th American president (who also has a February birthday). Opponents argued that Washington was a singular figure who deserved a day of his own. In the end, the name change proposal failed. The federal government still recognizes the holiday only as "Washington's Birthday." However, calling the long weekend “Presidents Day” has persisted.

Why Did ‘Presidents Day’ Stick?

Even though Presidents Day was never adopted as a federal holiday, many people think that it is one. One reason for this is that some states observe a “Presidents Day” state holiday (that, depending on which state you are in, may or may not be observed on the third Monday in February).

Other states, like Illinois and New York, commemorate Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, in addition to celebrating Washington’s Birthday. So, adopting the term “Presidents Day” in these states covers the celebrations for both of these American presidents.

However, the National Archives suggests that it was advertisers using the three-day Washington’s Birthday holiday to hold "Presidents Day" sales that gave the name real staying power. The sales became so popular that some retailers began having Presidents Day sales that lasted from Lincoln’s birthday through Washington’s birthday. Some retailers took things a step further by holding sales that lasted the entire month of February.

Soon after, Presidents Day started to appear on calendars and people started using the term interchangeably — or in place of — Washington’s Birthday.

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