Presidents Day can often feel like just another excuse for local businesses to have a sale, but it's actually a holiday with an interesting history, and celebrating it might just give you the perfect opportunity to learn a little more about our national roots.
How it Began
Presidents Day started out as the celebration of a birthday – George Washington's birthday, in fact – and the holiday was originally called "George Washington's Birthday" as well.* It was celebrated every year on February 22nd, the day Washington was born in 1732. After Washington's death in 1799, the nation mourned and decided to honor him by remembering him on his birthday.
In 1879, Washington's birthday was declared a federal holiday in the District of Columbia by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and it was adopted by the rest of the nation 1885. At the time, only four other annual federal holidays were in place: Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. Washington's birthday was the first American holiday to celebrate a citizen.
How it Evolved
In the 1960s, the U.S. government proposed a measure to shift several holidays from their actual dates to designated Mondays during the year in order to reduce confusion and create more three-day weekends for American workers. The measure passed in 1968 as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and officially went into effect in 1971. Because the shift moved the celebration of Washington's birthday to the third Monday of the month, it ended up being celebrated between Lincoln's birthday on February 12th and Washington's on February 22nd, which caused many – especially merchants eager for a snappy name for their holiday sales – to start calling the holiday "Presidents Day."**
How it's Celebrated Today
Today many educators use the weeks leading up to Presidents' Day to teach about our nation's most prominent presidents and leaders, especially George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and there are many states who also use the day to celebrate local political heroes and civil rights activists as well. Many civic organizations, like Boy Scout troops and other community groups, hold patriotic celebrations to honor our nation's most distinguished leaders.
How You Can Celebrate
It might not be quite as fun as that other February holiday with the red hearts and candy, but there are plenty of ways to make Presidents Day fun for you and your family. Here are just a few.
1. Money Quiz - How much do you know about those guys gracing the bills in your wallet and the coins in your purse or pocket? Have a brief history lesson about each president depicted on currency using this infographic from The Washington Post, then place some bills and coins into a top hat (a la Abraham Lincoln) and take turns drawing one out and see if you can remember a fact about the person who's on it. (For added incentive, let the person who draws the money out of the hat keep it if they can correctly identify the president and share a fact about him!)
2. Watch and Learn - Check out a fun, educational Presidents Day video like the ones at SimplyKinder.com and enjoy learning more about Washington, Lincoln, and the United States of America.
3. Read All About It - Dive into a few of these great read-aloud books about presidents – both real and imagined – and then take some time to discuss the book. What would you do if you were president? Even better, what can you do now to start enacting change as a private citizen? Take some time to think about ways you and your children can better serve and help in your community.
*According to history.com, the U.S. Government still officially refers to the Presidents' Day holiday as "George Washington's Birthday."
** Oddly enough, even though there are four U.S. presidents with birthdays in February – including Washington, Lincoln, Harrison, and Reagan – the third Monday in February falls in such a way that their birthdays are never actually on the day of Presidents' Day. It's always either too early or too late!