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Presidents Day Holiday Has Patchwork History

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Doug Nadvornick/SPR
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Many Americans enjoyed a day off today [Monday] for what we generically call Presidents Day. It’s a holiday for federal workers and a paid holiday for government employees at other levels as well. But it isn’t a day everyone gets off. There are variations around the country.

Many calendars list February 18, 2019 as Presidents Day. And in some places it may be. But that’s not the official name of the federal holiday, "which is actually Washington’s birthday,” according to Scott Bomboy, the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He’s written blog posts about this.

He says the idea of honoring George Washington with a holiday on his birthday goes back to the 1870s.

“But in 1968, there was an act of Congress, which consolidated four different holidays into holidays that were to observed on Mondays and that was basically for business reasons,” Bomboy said.

Washington’s birthday was one of those. The other three were Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day and Columbus Day. Veterans’ Day, of course, has since been moved back to November 11 after the public shared its displeasure.

So the day we know as Presidents Day technically celebrates the birth of the founder of the nation. Bomboy says it does not recognize the birth of the man many credit with saving the nation, Abraham Lincoln. That’s February 12.

But that’s just the feds. States have their own traditions.

“States actually determine when their workers have holidays and a lot of times, local government, county government, will follow the state lead,” he said.

But not always.

In his research, Bomboy found 12 states, including Washington, honor one president. They may call the day President’s Day. Or not. Virginia calls it George Washington Day, in honor of its native son.

Ten states celebrate Presidents’ Day to honor two presidents, though even that isn’t consistent.

“In Utah, they call it Washington and Lincoln Day, so they’re covering two bases there," Bomboy said. "Alabama, their holiday is the birthday of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And they don’t have a Lincoln’s birthday celebration in Alabama. They just don’t do that.”

What’s unique about that one is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday isn’t even in February. It’s April 13.

“Four states have Presidents Day with no possessive and 13 states don’t even observe Presidents Day or Washington’s birthday," Bomboy said. "It’s kind of a whole mishmash of stuff.”

So, it’s a little late for this year, but before you assume Presidents Day is a day off, Bomboy suggests maybe you should do a little research first.

“I know when I was doing my research about Ohio, I found some counties in Ohio that did not observe Presidents Day at all, but the state observed it, so it really depends on who your employer is," he said.

Hear Doug’s full Presidents Day interview toward the end of today’s Inland Journal podcast.