Is Monday Washington’s Birthday or Presidents’ Day?

A child at the base of the Washington Monument.

By Anna Breuer on 18 February 2022
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Monday, February 21, is Washington’s Birthday, a national holiday in the United States honoring the country’s first president, George Washington.

The holiday has another name as well.  In fact, it has several.

In Hawaii, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and seven other states, it’s stylized as Presidents’ Day, while in Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, and five other states, it’s President’s Day.  Three states – Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon – leave out the apostrophe entirely, calling the holiday Presidents Day, and that’s not the half of it.

To be clear, the name of the holiday really depends on whom you ask.  In reality, the holiday has no agreed-upon name and there is no universal agreement as to who is being honored, aside from George Washington. Oh, and there’s that pesky question about an apostrophe.

First, a quick review: George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, although on the day he was born, the calendar said it was February 11, 1731. The reason for this is simple: In 1752, 20 years after Washington’s birth, Britain and its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar and that moved Washington’s date of birth one year and 11 days.

Washington’s actual birthday, February 22, was first declared a federal holiday in 1879 by an act of Congress. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act – which created multiple three-day weekends via a move to Monday holidays – shifted the observance from February 22 to the third Monday in February, to be effective starting in 1971. This change meant that the holiday now never falls on Washington’s actual birthday, falling instead anywhere from February 15 through February 21.

The funny thing is that, during the debate on the bill, it was proposed that the holiday be renamed Presidents’ Day to honor both Washington and Lincoln but, following great debate on the matter, Congress rejected the name change.

After the bill went into effect in 1971, the name Presidents’ Day became the commonly used term, in part due to the use of that moniker for holiday sales by major department stores and retailers.

Indeed, no other national holiday in the United States is this unclear as to what its name or purpose is.

Many people refer to the Monday holiday as Presidents, President’s, or Presidents’ Day because it comes shortly after the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, a holiday observed in many states, on February 12. There is little agreement on 1.) whether there is an apostrophe at all and 2.) whether the placement of the apostrophe, if present, is before the “s” (hence genitive singular) or after it (genitive plural).

Here’s the lowdown on naming: The federal government continues to call it Washington’s Birthday. Some states honor both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the Monday holiday, while others honor Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but not Lincoln. Lincoln’s home state of Illinois continues to observe his birthday as a holiday on February 12.  The third Monday in February is a holiday without a name in California, while Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 is explicitly named as a separate and distinct holiday.

Finally, in Washington’s home state, Virginia, the holiday is referred to as George Washington’s Day. Alabama calls it Washington and Jefferson Day, even though Jefferson’s birthday isn’t until April.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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