Contrary to popular belief, the observed federal holiday is actually called “Washington’s Birthday.” Neither Congress nor the President has ever stipulated that the name of the holiday observed as Washington’s Birthday be changed to Presidents’ Day. Additionally, Congress has never declared a national holiday binding in all states and each state decides its own legal holidays. This is why there are some calendar discrepancies when it comes to this holiday.
So how did Washington’s Birthday come to be called Presidents’ Day? Many calendars list the third Monday of February as Presidents’ Day and many U.S. states list the holiday as Presidents’ Day. Of course, all of the 3-day retail store sales are called “Presidents’ Day” sales and this vernacular has also been influential in how we reference the holiday.
Washington’s birthday was celebrated on February 22 until well into the 20th Century. In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”
Today, George Washington’s Birthday is one of only eleven permanent holidays established by Congress. One of the great traditions followed for decades has been the reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address—which remains an annual event for the Senate to this day.
In a sense, Washington’s birthday helps us reflect on not just the first president but also the founding of our nation, the values, and what Washington calls in his Farewell Address, the “beloved Constitution and union, as received from the Founders.”