Is It Called Presidents’ Day Or Washington’s Birthday?

Mount Rushmore, blue filter

If you live in the United States and you’re anything like us, you might view Presidents’ Day as just another three-day weekend in February.

But the story behind this important commemorative holiday is more interesting than you might think—especially considering Presidents’ Day isn’t the official name of the holiday at all.

Why do we celebrate Presidents’ Day?

Presidents’ Day was first established in 1885 to honor the February 22 birthday of our mythic first president and dollar bill cover model, George Washington. In fact, the holiday is still officially known by the federal government as Washington’s Birthday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill into law making Washington’s birthday a holiday. Originally only celebrated within the District of Columbia, the holiday became a federal one in 1885, marking the first time an American individual was memorialized via a federally recognized bank holiday. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the second.)

In 1971, the holiday known as Washington’s Birthday experienced a big change with the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which created more three-day weekends for workers. This act moved the holiday to the third Monday in February. When the bill was signed into law, a newspaper spoof declared Washington’s Birthday a day for for all presidents—and people latched on to the idea even though it was never formalized at the federal level.

Here’s the even more interesting part: depending on where you live, the official name of this holiday varies. In some states, the holiday honors George Washington, in others it honors both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (born Feb. 12). Yet other states honor a combination of presidents, hence the name Presidents’ Day.

Celebrate your curiosity by learning even more about the history and meaning behind Presidents’ Day here.

Why do we call the president … the president?

Have you ever wondered why we call the leader of our nation a president, and not, say, His Majesty the King? Well that was by design.

In 1789 or so, as George Washington was readying to take the oath of office, Congress was debating what title to give their new leader. The House of Representatives felt the simple label of president, found in Article II of the Constitution, sufficed, while the Senate pushed for a more regal title that would demand respect for the office. Several highfalutin terms were floated, such as His Exalted Highness, His Elective Highness, Chief Magistrate, and, our personal favorite, the verbose His Highness, the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties.

Vice President John Adams liked that last one, though Thomas Jefferson reportedly said it was “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of.”

The title debate lasted over three weeks, amounting to one of the first major disputes between the House and the Senate over the language of the Constitution. We’re very glad they landed on president.

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Does one Presidents’ Day holiday fit all?

Although Presidents’ Day originally recognized Washington, the holiday seems to have morphed into a patriotic day that celebrates the general achievements of all our leaders, past and present. According to the History Channel, “some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents’ Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).”

The holiday also gives car dealers an excuse to have weekend-holiday sales, since nothing says “Presidents’ Day” like a sweet deal on a new Toyota.

Should we use the apostrophe or not?

Because the holiday celebrates more than one president, the plural possessive spelling of Presidents’ Day is the one most often considered standard. Presidents’ (plural) communicates the day belongs to more than one president. This is the spelling you are most likely to see used on calendars and by major newspapers. That being said, the apostrophe-less Presidents Day is a popular alternative and is favored by the Associated Press Stylebook.

Confusingly, the singular possessive President’s Day also sees use as the legal name of the holiday in some states. However, the plural versions are much more common, so many may consider the singular President’s Day to be incorrect.

Regardless, just be glad we don’t have to celebrate His Exalted Highness Day. Nobody wants that.

Can't get enough US presidential history? Take a look at these Chiefs of Presidential Speech.

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