Presidents’ Day is observed annually on the third Monday in February
Although the holiday is most often referred to as “Presidents’ Day” in popular use, the observed federal holiday is officially 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’s date.
So why is Washington’s Birthday commonly called Presidents’ Day?
In a sense, calling the holiday Presidents’ Day 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.” Additionally, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is in February (on the 12th), so by calling the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” we can encompass this great president in our celebrations as well.
Today, many calendars list the third Monday of February as Presidents’ Day, just as quite a few U.S. states do, too. 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.
Historically, Americans began celebrating George Washington’s Birthday just months after his death, long before Congress declared it a federal holiday. It was not until 1879, under President Rutherford B. Hayes, that Washington’s Birthday became a legal holiday, to be observed on his birthday, February 22.
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 11 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.