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What you may not know about Presidents Day

By Ed Hornick, CNN
  • Monday is a federal holiday but the name commonly used is not correct
  • The day celebrates the nation's first president, George Washington
  • While Lincoln's birthday is close to Washington's, it is not federally recognized

Washington (CNN) -- Retailers open their doors Monday and roll out big sales to entice customers. Government employees -- along with kids -- have the day off. But do you know why?

If you answered "Presidents Day," you're technically wrong.

The actual federal holiday is called "Washington's Birthday," after the nation's first president, George Washington.

According to the Gregorian calendar, adopted by England and its colonies after Washington was born, his birth date was February 22, 1732. (The Julian calendar has him born on February 11.) He is viewed as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history and was also much adored during his lifetime.

"In the earlier years, when it was celebrated, it was more than celebrating his birth, it was celebrating what we liked about Washington: He walked away from power, a very poignant lesson for people," said presidential historian Doug Wead.

It wasn't until 1885, though, that February 22 became designated a federal holiday to honor Washington.

Presidential historian C.L. Arbelbide wrote in a 2004 article in the National Archives publication "Prologue" that succeeding generations found "significant ways to periodically resurrect his memory," as evidenced by the laying of the Washington Monument's cornerstone in 1848.

"The numerous tributes continued to reaffirm George Washington's place as the original 'American Idol,' " Arbelbide wrote in the article titled "By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday!"

Wead, who was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, said Americans later fell in love with another president with similar attributes.

Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, 1809, became a popular figure after freeing the slaves and ending the Civil War. But it wasn't until his assassination in April 1865 that Americans began to see Lincoln in a different light.

"Lincoln, because he was assassinated, he overnight became a beloved figure and suddenly a genius," Wead said.

Although he was considered "a buffoon and dumb during his time," after his death, everything he said was re-read and studied, Wead said.

In 1968, Congress debated whether to combine the two president's birthdays into one holiday, but decided against it. The legislative body passed the Monday Holidays Act that year, which said existing federal holidays would now be observed on Mondays to give government workers a long weekend.

The bill went into effect in 1971 and deemed that "Washington's Birthday" would be moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February.

But even today, Congress does not necessarily celebrate the day with the official title. While the House and Senate celebrate February 15 as "Washington's Birthday" this year, their weeklong recess is known as "President's Day District Work Period."

Though his birthday is a federal holiday, not all states celebrate it on the same day. While Congress has the authority to create federal holidays, states and the private sector do not have to observe them.

With the confusion over whose birthday it is and when it is celebrated, many Americans have simply lost interest in the day's true meaning, Wead said. The reason? Presidential nostalgia has been replaced by criticism and controversy.

"We don't have that [nostalgia] anymore. Part of that is cynicism about presidents today -- Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Bush ... there's less respect," he said. "There was a lot of respect for Washington because he walked away from power. That was just unheard of."

CNN's Kristi Keck contributed to this report.