Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What is the Purpose of Presidents Day?

Want to know the purpose of Presidents' Day? Well, the generally understood purpose of Presidents Day (alternately spelled President's Day, Presidents' Day, or Presidents Day) is to celebrate the American presidency and remember all those who served as President of the United States. This, however, is not the official purpose of the holiday.

The Origin of Presidents Day

In 1885, Congress officially set aside February 22 as a national holiday to honor the birth of America's first President, George Washington. Thus, the holiday we know as "Presidents Day" began as a day to celebrate only one President. And, legally, it is still (at least at the federal level) a day exclusive to George Washington.

In the decades following Lincoln's assassination, there began a movement to honor the 16th President as well. Since Lincoln's birthday (February 12) fell so close to Washington's birthday (February 22 by the modern calendar), it became popular and fashionable to celebrate BOTH birthdays. (Those readers who have birthdays on or close to December 25 understand how this kind of thing happens). Some states began doing this.

In the 1960s, Congress considered officially re-naming Washington's holiday to "Presidents Day" to honor both men. That was shot down, but Congress did pass the Monday Holidays Act, taking Washington's birthday holiday away from the actual birthday and moving it to the third Monday in February.

By the late 1980s, thanks to several states and (most significantly) retail establishments advertising "Presidents Day" sales on TV, the name "Presidents' Day" stuck in popular culture.

Most businesses, calendars, and individuals now say "Presidents Day" rather than "George Washington's Birthday Observed" (even though the latter is the federally designated, official name for the February holiday).

The Legacy of Presidents Day

Though the original intent behind the "Presidents Day" concept was to honor both Lincoln and Washington, the day has lost much of its significance. It now stands as a weak celebration of the American presidency in general and all our Presidents.

And, most people pass by the holiday with little regard for its meaning anyway. They simply see it as a day off work. An extra day to travel, visit family, or shop.

The Monday Holidays Act may be good for the economy, but it's terrible for holiday celebrations. After all, the root concept behind "holiday" is "holy day" - a day to set aside as sacred and worthy of celebration.

Of course, I'm not saying that George Washington was holy. He was a flesh-and-blood human being -- one flawed in many areas. But the original dream (carried out in 1885 by federal law) to honor the Father of our Country with a day set aside for esteem and celebration has long vanished.

And, for that matter, those who wish to honor Abraham Lincoln by hijacking Washington's day have fared little better. Their man has also been lost in the ambiguous, meaningless "Presidents Day."

A Proposed Solution

At this point, the term "Presidents Day" is deeply entrenched in American culture and in popular lexicon. Eradicating it will be impossible, but....

What if we MOVED "Presidents' Day"?

What if Congress designated January 20 of each year as "Presidents' Day" - a day to celebrate the American presidency. And when "Presidents' Day" falls on an actual Inauguration Day, it will be a federal holiday.

Congress should then remove George Washington's birthday from the Monday Holidays Act and celebrate his birthday on his actual birthday. That's the only way to get people to say "Washington's birthday" again.

What about Lincoln?

There are two solutions: the cheap way or the expensive way. The expensive way (expensive in terms of cost to the federal government, but perhaps good for the economy) is to have two holidays in February. Give both Washington and Lincoln their own individual day, but (here's the catch)...

The holiday only counts when it falls on an actual day of the week. If it falls on Saturday or Sunday, you don't get Friday or Monday off. That will save the government some money.

The other way is to let GW have preeminence in February. His birthday is the one celebrated with a holiday, UNLESS it falls on a Saturday or Sunday. In THAT year, Lincoln's day is celebrated as a holiday.

Now, I'm not naive. I realize the chances of my proposal ever seeing the light of day are remote. Neither the White House nor Congress painstakingly follows this blog for policy recommendations :-), so this will probably never come to pass.

But, hopefully, some day, somebody will speak up for the Father of our Country and help right this wrong.


Barack said...

Interesting. I'll think about it.

ArthurFan said...

Why stop at Washington and Lincoln though? Wouldn't you think that FDR, JFK, Reagan, and of course Chester A. Arthur deserve their own day of acknowledgement as much if not more so?