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Why "Presidents' Day" Is Not So Accurate

David McAlpine |
February 20, 2012 | 6:19 p.m. PST

Supervising Executive Producer

Presidents' Day is actually a federal holiday to celebrate the birthday of our first president, George Washington. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Presidents' Day is actually a federal holiday to celebrate the birthday of our first president, George Washington. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
As the story goes, George Washington could not tell a lie. And if he were still around today, he'd surely be among the first to correct anyone who called today, February 20, 2012, "Presidents' Day."

As widely used as the term is to name this federal holiday in the middle of February, it's not quite correct. The day's official name is "Washington's Birthday," in honor of the United States' first president, whose actual birthday is February 22. As of 1971, it's been celebrated on the third Monday of every February.

However, the proximity of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, which is February 12, has led to a common misconception that the holiday is meant to celebrate both leaders of the U.S.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Though Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, was never a federal holiday, it was celebrated in some jurisdictions. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, many people surmised — incorrectly — that it was to jointly honor both the Father of His Country and the Great Emancipator.

Adding to the perception is the fact that Lincoln’s birthday is a holiday in some locales and that some jurisdictions do honor both presidents today. Toss in ads screaming “Presidents Day Sale!” and the confusion spreads.

In fact, Lincoln's birthday was celebrated as a state holiday last Monday in seven states, but that  doesn't mean he's forgotten on this holiday, too.

The Washington Post reported:

To the U.S. government and Virginia, the home state of George Washington, the holiday is recognized as “Washington’s Birthday.” Some states jointly celebrate the birthdays of George Washington, born Feb. 22, and Abraham Lincoln, born Feb. 12, while others honor Washington and Thomas Jefferson but not Lincoln. In some Southern states, all of the presidents are commemorated on Presidents’ Day.

So why all the fuss? Well, for some, the "unofficial" observance of more than one president isn't enough for the legacy that Lincoln left behind.

From the Los Angeles Times:

"The state of Illinois wishes that Lincoln was placed on equal footing" with Washington, with a holiday all his own, Blanchette told The Times.

Over the decades, public opinion polls have always put the two men in a neck-and-neck race for the No. 1 and No. 2 spots when it comes to importance in American history, he said.

"They both deserve a holiday," Blanchette said.

Still, he said, Lincoln historians are grateful that the nation's attention turns to Lincoln at this time each year. (There were official observances recently of the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln's Feb. 12, 1809, birth.)

The task facing Lincoln was arguably more challenging than the one facing Washington, he said.

Washington helped oversee the creation of the United States. But Lincoln was the figure who kept the  United States from falling apart because of the Civil War.

"It's a shame," Blanchett said. "Many people don't know who fought the Civil War or why, or why it should matter to us today."



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