3 Facts about Presidents’ Day That May Surprise You

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega tries to clear up some of the confusion about today’s federal holiday: is it Washington’s Birthday, Presidents’ Day, President’s Day, or Presidents Day? Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

This week starts off with a three-day weekend, but how much do you really know about Presidents’ Day? The following three facts may surprise you.

Photo: Los Angeles Consolidated Electric streetcar decorated for Washington’s Birthday, c. 1892. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Los Angeles Consolidated Electric streetcar decorated for Washington’s Birthday, c. 1892. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

1) Is It Called Presidents’ Day or Washington’s Birthday?

What is the name of the holiday celebrated today? Your calendar, like mine, may say “Presidents’ Day” but in actuality this federal holiday is officially called “Washington’s Birthday.”

Yes, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington both had February birthdays (Lincoln’s was February 12, Washington’s February 22), but the federal holiday commemorates only Washington’s birthday. However, this holiday has several different name variations in various states, as some states celebrate just Washington, some both Washington and Lincoln, and some celebrate all presidents on this day.

Washington’s birthday was celebrated prior to it becoming a federal holiday – in fact, President Lincoln issued an 1862 proclamation that February 22nd should be celebrated in honor of the first U.S. president. (1) This Boston newspaper described some of the celebrations.

An article about Washington's Birthday, Boston Morning Journal newspaper 22 February 1862
Boston Morning Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 1862, page 2

In 1885 a federal holiday was declared honoring the first president’s birthday. This Rockford, Illinois, newspaper announced that banks would be closed and newspapers would not be printed in honor of Washington’s birthday.

An article about Washington's Birthday, Daily Gazette newspaper 20 February 1885
Daily Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 20 February 1885, page 4

2) George Washington’s Birthday Is the 22nd – Why Isn’t the Holiday on That Day?

Historically, Washington’s birthday was celebrated on his actual birthday, February 22. In the 1960s there was a decision to take some federal holidays and change their observance from a specific date to a predetermined Monday, to give workers a three-day weekend. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, signed into law in 1968, altered some holidays including Washington’s birthday. Instead of the holiday falling on February 22nd it was changed to the third Monday in February. (2) This law went into effect in 1971, and because it fell between Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays it became known, unofficially, as Presidents’ Day.

An article about federal holidays, Advocate newspaper 1 September 1969
Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1 September 1969, page 22

3) What about Abraham Lincoln?

We think of today’s federal holiday as “Presidents’ Day,” even though it honors Washington’s birthday. Although there was some federal government discussion about officially changing the name of the holiday to Presidents’ Day, the idea did not pass. However, Presidents’ Day has been the unofficial name for the holiday, especially in the retail world where there are Presidents’ Day (or “President’s Day” or even “Presidents Day”) sales over the three-day weekend.

An ad for a Presidents' Day sale, Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper 19 February 2018
Las Vegas Review-Journal (Las Vegas, Nevada), 19 February 2018, page 52

So, what about President Abraham Lincoln? Some states have historically celebrated Lincoln’s birthday. I found mentions of the holiday starting in 1867, two years after his death.

An article about Lincoln's birthday, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser newspaper 14 February 1867
Buffalo Commercial Advertiser (Buffalo, New York), 14 February 1867, page 2

In some states, such as Illinois, his birthday is a state holiday. As mentioned earlier, some states celebrate his birthday alongside Washington’s for today’s holiday, calling it Presidents’ Day instead of Washington’s Birthday.

Happy Washington’s Birthday/Presidents’ Day!

Whether you refer to today as Washington’s Birthday or Presidents’ Day, have a wonderful family day today and think of our former presidents.

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Note on the header image: a poster letting people know that no business will be conducted on Washington’s Birthday (then celebrated on February 22), c. 1895. Credit: Edward Penfield; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.


(1) “History of President’s Day,” Georgia Southern University (https://georgiasouthern.libguides.com/c.php?g=1119310&p=8176854: accessed 16 February 2023).
(2) Ibid.

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