Why Don't We Celebrate Washington's Birthday On His Birthday (And What About Lincoln)?

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Happy Washington's Birthday! Oh, did you think we were celebrating Presidents' Day? In fact, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is officially known as Washington's Day to celebrate the birthday of the first president.

But, of course, today isn't George Washington's birthday at all—George was actually born on the 22nd. Originally, the federal government did designate his actual birthday as a holiday, but that was changed in 1971 under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which changed four holidays to fall on a Monday (like Memorial Day coming on the last Monday of May) in an attempt to get more three-day weekends and spur retail business.

That means that the official celebration of Washington's birthday falls somewhere in between his birthday and Abraham Lincoln's (February 12), but never actually on either date.

Because of the proximity to Lincoln's birthday, there was an effort in 1968 to amend the holiday to honor both Presidents—but it was unsuccessful, and passed with just Washington's birthday attached to the holiday. An article from the National Archives chronicles the debate and Illinois Rep. Robert McClory's attempts to include Lincoln, only to drop the idea to mollify a group of legislators from Virginia.

Many states had previously tried to combine the presidents' birthdays, nominating March 4 as Presidents' Day, but that also never stuck. Today, some have simply renamed the third Monday as "Presidents' Day" to honor both, or even more. Alabama, for example, calls it "Washington and Jefferson Day," despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson was born in April. And a few other states, including Illinois, celebrate both the federal Presidents' Day and designate Lincoln's birthday as a state holiday.

But it may not stay that way for long. Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf has introduced legislation that would restore the federal holiday to Feb. 22 in order to "change the focus of the holiday from celebrating sales at the mall to celebrating the significance of President Washington’s birth and the birth of our nation," as he said in a statement. Wolf has even recruited support from author David McCullough and historians like Ron Chernow for his cause. His last attempt to change the holiday failed (although he did get to present the idea to the House Oversight Committee last year), but Wolf says he's ready to try again. So celebrate today—it could be the last Presidents' Day you ever get.

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February 18, 2013 - 9:30am
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