Today’s holiday

This is an odd American holiday. This Washington Post piece from yesterday — “Why Presidents’ Day is slightly strange” by Valerie Strauss — explains why.

From the article:

Most federal holidays are clear-cut. On the Fourth of July, for example, Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. On the other hand, Presidents’ Day is a slightly strange holiday for three main reasons:

*There is no universal agreement on the actual name of the holiday.

* There is no universal agreement on which presidents are being honored.

* There is no agreement on something as simple as whether is an apostrophe in “presidents.”

Ask  a handful of people who the holiday is meant to recognize, and you aren’t likely to get the same answers. In fact, what is generally called Presidents’ Day is still recognized by the U.S. government as Washington’s Birthday. lists it like this: George Washington’s Birthday (Presidents’ Day) – February 17 and it describes the holiday this way:

Washington’s Birthday is observed the third Monday of February in honor George Washington, the first President of the United States. This date is commonly called Presidents’ Day and many groups honor the legacy of past presidents on this date.

Some states do in fact honor both Washington, who was born Feb. 22, and Abraham Lincoln, who was born Feb. 12. But other states honor Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but not Lincoln, on this holiday and some states honor all the presidents. Then there are a handful of states, including Illinois, that have declared Lincoln’s birthday a state holiday — whatever day of the week Feb. 12 happens to fall — while also marking the federal holiday. In Virginia, Washington’s home state, the holiday is called George Washington’s Day. In Alabama, it is called “Washington and Jefferson Day” (although Jefferson was born on April 13).

… So, today, though the federal holiday is marked on the third Monday in February, there is no agreed-upon name, no universal agreement on who is being celebrated, and the use of the apostrophe in the name is varied: Sometimes it isn’t used at all (as in Presidents Day), sometimes it is placed between the last two letters (President’s Day) and sometimes it is after the last letter  (Presidents’ Day).

For the record, I am generally sparing of apostrophes, so I write Presidents Day. In speech, of course, there is no difference between the three versions, and you can argue that all three written versions are justifiable for the name of the holiday.

3 Responses to “Today’s holiday”

  1. John Baker Says:

    At the federal level, at least, there is no ambiguity: the holiday is Washington’s Birthday. 5 U.S.C. 6103(a), This would probably surprise many Americans, who know it only as Presidents[‘] Day (or President’s Day, although I personally consider that usage an error).

    But perhaps the oddest holiday name is the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Admittedly, “King’s Birthday” would sound weird. “Martin Luther King Day” is the colloquial name, and Columbus Day forms an analogous precedent.

  2. Julian Lander Says:

    I think it’s political: the Old South was not about to honor Lincoln. In my youth in Massachusetts (only a few years after Lincoln’s assassination, clearly), we had holidays on both Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, and Washington’s, February 22. Of Jefferson we knew nothing, nor, for that matter, of John Adams, my personal favorite and a Massachusetts native.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    For added amusement, Washington’s actual birthday is Feb. 22, which is the date the holiday was celebrated on before we went to mostly Monday holidays (anybody besides Arnold and me remember this?). But Washington was actually born on a date that anyone in Great Britain or its possessions at the time considered to be Feb. 11, 1732. My understanding is that after Britain finally joined the rest of Western Europe in using the Gregorian calendar (sometime in the 1750s), Washington considered Feb. 22 to be his birthday, as it was the actual anniversary of his birth.

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