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Washington's Birthday or Presidents Day

What holiday are you celebrating on the third Monday in February?

Audrey Schewe



George Washington
Public Holidays

(CNN Student News) -- On the third Monday in February, schools and banks close, federal buildings shut down, and a deluge of advertisements for three-day sales overwhelm even the avid shopper. What's the occasion? Well, that depends on whom you ask - and where you live.

C.L. Arbelbide, a librarian, author and historian who specializes in federal holiday history, offers three possibilities. "On February 20, 2006, you will either be celebrating the intended federal holiday, 'Washington's Birthday,' your state's holiday, if different from the federal holiday, or the advertising sound bite 'Presidents Day.'" (Take the Washington quiz)

So why the confusion?

In the early days of the new republic, federal workers in the District of Columbia, like many citizens in surrounding states, celebrated George Washington's birthday on February 22. Congress caught on and expanded the District's holidays in 1880. In the process, Congress created "Washington's Birthday," the first federal holiday to honor an American-born citizen. By 1885, Congress expanded the law to include all federal workers in the country's 38 states.

For nearly two centuries, Americans reserved February 22 as a day to honor the famed general, farmer, Founding Father and first president of the United States - in other words, the original 'American Idol.'

But in 1968, Congress decided to shift a number of existing federal holidays, including Washington's Birthday, to Mondays to give families time to spend together and to minimize midweek holiday interruptions for businesses and employers. This law was known as the Uniform Monday Holidays Act.

A previous attempt to change Washington's Birthday to Presidents Day had been rejected by the House Judiciary Committee. Concerns centered on separating the holiday from its fixed date of February 22. Illinois representative and bill supporter Robert McClory assured Congress that February 22 would occasionally fall on the chosen third Monday in February. "The claim proved to be incorrect," says Arbelbide. "It was the fourth Monday on which February 22 would occasionally fall." Despite this setback, there was this unshakable belief that "no one would forget Washington."

Over time, the third Monday in February fell between Washington's and Lincoln's actual birth dates. When the second citizen holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was added in 1986, Congress did not repeat its earlier error. King's birth date, January 15, would occasionally fall on the chosen third Monday in January.

After 1971, states shifted their state holidays to the federally declared third Monday in February. However, while Congress has the authority to create federal holidays, states and the private sector are not required to celebrate them. Each state can determine its own legal holidays, and states did not uniformly adopt the name "Washington's Birthday."

In Washington's native Virginia, the day is known as "George Washington Day." A handful of states, including Maryland, Texas and Pennsylvania, chose to rename their state holiday "Presidents Day."

Even then, Presidents Day was not uniform in meaning. Massachusetts, a state that recognizes Washington's Birthday, also has a separate Presidents Day to honor its citizens who served as president.

If you find this confusing, you are not alone. Even former President Bill Clinton mistakenly issued a proclamation in 2000 declaring the third Monday in February to be Presidents Day.

One needs only to turn on the television or read a newspaper in February to witness how the tremendous power of advertising can lead to confusion about the name and purpose of this holiday. But not everyone has been misled by commercials. In Abraham Lincoln's native Illinois and some other states, residents celebrate separate Lincoln and Washington birth dates in February.

And then there is Georgia, whose governor reserves the right to select the day for celebrating state holidays. The Peach State celebrates Washington's Birthday as a state holiday - but on December 26.

"The intention of Congress was to honor a man whose leadership led to the achievement of independence and the establishment of the country and the invention of the presidency," Arbelbide says. "Separate the historical date from the intention of the federal holiday, and it's left to all who come after to determine what they are celebrating or advertising."

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