Washington's Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States, who was born on February 22, 1732. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 moved this holiday to the third Monday, which can fall from February 15 to 21, inclusive.
Colloquially, the day is also now widely known as Presidents' Day (though the placement of the apostrophe, if any, varies) and is often an occasion to remember all the presidents.
The day is a state holiday in most states, with official names including Washington's Birthday, Presidents' Day, President's Day, and Washington's and Lincoln's Birthday. The various states use 14 different names. Depending upon the specific law, the state holiday may officially celebrate Washington alone, Washington and Lincoln, or some other combination of U.S. presidents (such as Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was born in April).
Official state holidays
Although Lincoln's Birthday, February 12, was never a federal holiday, nearly half of the state governments have officially renamed their Washington's Birthday observances as "Presidents' Day", "Washington and Lincoln Day", or other such designations. (In historical rankings of presidents of the United States Lincoln and Washington are frequently, but not always, the top two presidents.)
In the following states and possessions of the United States, Washington's Birthday is an official state holiday and known as:
Using "president" in the official title
- "Presidents' Day" in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington
- "President's Day" in Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming
- "Presidents Day" in Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon
- "Washington's Birthday/President's Day" in Maine
- "Lincoln/Washington/Presidents' Day" in Arizona
Using "Washington" alone
- George Washington Day in Virginia
- Washington's Birthday in Illinois, Iowa,, Massachusetts, Michigan, Louisiana and New York
Using both "Washington" and "Lincoln"
- Lincoln's and Washington's Birthday in Montana
- Washington–Lincoln Day in Colorado, Ohio
- Washington and Lincoln Day in Utah
- Washington's and Lincoln's Birthday in Minnesota
Using "Washington" and another person
- George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday in Alabama
- George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Bates Day in Arkansas
- "The third Monday in February" in California; Lincoln's birthday is explicitly named as a separate holiday.
Several states honor presidents with official state holidays that do not fall on the third Monday of February. In Massachusetts, the state officially celebrates "Washington's Birthday" on the same day as the federal holiday. State law also directs the governor to issue an annual "Presidents Day" proclamation on May 29 (John F. Kennedy's birthday), honoring the presidents with Massachusetts roots: Kennedy, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Calvin Coolidge. In California, Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois, while Washington's Birthday is a federal holiday, Abraham Lincoln's birthday is still a state holiday, falling on February 12 regardless of the day of the week.
In New Mexico, Presidents' Day, at least as a state-government paid holiday, is observed on the Friday following Thanksgiving, although the legal public holiday remains the third Monday in February. In Georgia, Washington's Birthday is not a state-government paid holiday, although until 2018 it was officially observed on Christmas Eve. Similarly, in Indiana, Washington's Birthday is observed on Christmas Eve, or the day preceding the weekend if Christmas falls on Saturday or Sunday, while Lincoln's Birthday is the day after Thanksgiving.
George Washington was born on February 11, 1731 (Old Style), at his parents' Pope's Creek Estate near Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia. At the time, the entire British Empire, including its North American possessions, was on the Julian calendar; the Empire, not being bound to the Catholic Church, had not yet adopted the modern Gregorian calendar that Catholic countries had adopted in 1582. Consequently, by the 1730s, the Julian calendar used by Britain and the Colonies was eleven days behind the Gregorian, due to leap year differences. Furthermore, the British civil year began on March 25 rather than January 1, so that dates in February (such as this one) 'belonged' to the preceding year. (See Dual dating). In 1752, The British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar; since then, Americans born prior to 1752, including Washington, have typically had their birthdays recognized under what their birthday would have been under the Gregorian calendar ("New Style" dates). Since, during the 1700s, February 11 under the Julian calendar would fall as February 22 on the Gregorian, Washington's birthday has been generally recognized as February 22, 1732.
The federal holiday honoring Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington (20 Stat. 277) and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices (23 Stat. 516). As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington's birthday under the Gregorian calendar, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This places it between February 15 and 21, which makes "Washington's Birthday" something of a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington's actual birthday, February 22. (A rough analogue of this phenomenon can be seen in Commonwealth realms, where the reigning monarch's official birthday is celebrated without regard to their actual date of birth.)
The first attempt to create a Presidents Day occurred in 1951 when the "President's Day National Committee" was formed by Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California, who became its National Executive Director for the next two decades. The purpose was not to honor any particular president but to honor the office of the presidency. It was first thought that March 4, the original inauguration day, should be deemed Presidents Day, but the bill recognizing March 4 stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which had authority over federal holidays). The committee felt that, given its proximity to Lincoln's and Washington's Birthdays, three holidays so close together would be unduly burdensome. But meanwhile the governors of a majority of the states issued proclamations declaring March 4 Presidents' Day in their respective jurisdictions.
An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday "Presidents' Day" to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, which would explain why the chosen date falls between the two, but this proposal failed in committee, and the bill was voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, keeping the name "Washington's Birthday".
By the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers, the term "Presidents' Day" began its public appearance.
In Washington's adopted hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, celebrations are held throughout February.
Observance and traditions
A food traditionally associated with the holiday is cherry pie, based on the legendary chopping down of a cherry tree in Washington's youth.
Until the late 1980s, corporate businesses generally closed on this day, similar to present corporate practices on Memorial Day or Christmas Day. However, after having been moved to the third Monday, most businesses remain open with many offering sales and other promotions. Federal and state government services close (U.S. Postal Service, state Departments of Motor Vehicles, federal and state courts). Class schedules at universities and colleges vary depending on the school. Public elementary and secondary schools are generally closed, but some school districts, such as New York City, may close for an entire week as a "mid-winter recess".
The holiday is also a tribute to the general who created the first military badge of merit for the common soldier. Revived on Washington's 200th birthday in 1932, the Purple Heart medal (which bears Washington's image) is awarded to soldiers who are injured in battle.
Community celebrations often display a lengthy heritage. Washington's hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, hosts a month-long tribute, including what is claimed to be the nation's longest-running and largest George Washington Birthday parade, while Eustis, Florida, continues its annual "GeorgeFest" celebration begun in 1902. In Denver, Colorado, there is a society dedicated to observing the day. At the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Virginia, visitors are treated to birthday celebrations on the holiday, while at Mount Vernon, they last throughout the holiday weekend and through February 22.
Since 1862 there has been a tradition in the United States Senate that George Washington's Farewell Address be read on his birthday. Citizens asked that this be done in light of the ongoing Civil War.
Because "Presidents' Day" is not the official name of the federal holiday there is variation in how it is rendered, both colloquially and in the name of official state holidays.
When used with the intention of celebrating more than one individual, the form "Presidents' Day" was usual in the past. In recent years, as the use of attributive nouns (nouns acting as modifiers) has become more widespread, the form "Presidents Day" has become more common; the Associated Press Stylebook, most newspapers and some magazines use this form.
"President's Day" as an alternate rendering of "Washington's Birthday", or for the purpose of commemorating the presidency as an institution, is a proper use of a possessive and is the legal rendering in eight states.
- Media related to Washington's Birthday at Wikimedia Commons