American Holidays: Presidents' Day

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11628

What if every president had his or her own holiday? Do they all deserve a holiday? Two presidents had their holidays, but they kind of got lost. Find out the political history behind Presidents' Day!

categories

Social Studies

subject
Social Studies
learning style
Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Do you know what the "legal" title is for Presidents' Day? You mean it's not really Presidents' Day?

Each year on the third Monday in February, Americans recognize Presidents' Day.

Interestingly, the holiday is not officially called "Presidents' Day," and the date when it is celebrated has shifted over the years. Some might even say Presidents' Day looks nothing like it was intended to be when it was first made a federal holiday in 1879.

George Washington's birthday is February 22. After he died in 1799, he was honored and remembered annually on this date throughout the United States. In 1879, President Hayes signed a law making Washington's Birthday a national holiday. This is significant because, at the time, the only other federal holidays were Christmas, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day. It would be more than 100 years before another individual would be recognized with a national holiday. In 1983, President Reagan signed a law that created a holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. If you haven't yet explored the first two Related Lessons in this American Holidays series, please go to the right-hand sidebar bar to do so!

For nearly 100 years, the country celebrated Washington's Birthday on February 22, but the holiday began to change in 1968 when President Nixon signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act into law. The goal of the law was to move many federal holidays to specific Mondays in an effort to create more three-day weekends, and to prevent people from taking off from work. Initially, the act was controversial because many people felt moving holidays to accommodate time off work would minimize the true meaning of the holidays.

Washington's Birthday was one of the holidays forced to move to a permanent Monday under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. In addition to moving the date of Washington's Birthday, the act also sought to change the name of the holiday to Presidents' Day to honor all presidents, especially since Abraham Lincoln's birthday was only a few weeks after Washington's, and was already recognized in several states. This component of the act received resistance from historians and politicians from Virginia (Washington's home state) and was removed from the bill before the act was passed.


Even though the title of the holiday remained Washington's Birthday, the move to the third Monday in February caused many to begin calling the date Presidents' Day. The date shift put the holiday between Washington and Lincoln's birthdays, and many assumed the date change was meant to accommodate both famous presidents. Historians have contested this change in perception for years, saying the legacies of Washington's and Lincoln's presidencies should not be grouped with unsuccessful presidents.

Today, Washington's Birthday has become a bit of a commercialized holiday. Many stores use the holiday as a reason for hosting sales. Some places of business and school districts allow workers and students the day off, respectively. Students who do go to school often spend the day learning about the American presidents, particularly Washington and Lincoln.

Now that you have learned about the history of Presidents' Day, will you go on calling the holiday Presidents' Day, or will you begin calling it by its official name, Washington's Birthday? Share your opinion with your teacher or parent.

Now, move on to the Got It? section to continue learning about this patriotic holiday.

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