By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips
Many schools and colleges observe U.S. federal holidays by cancelling classes for the day. These holidays include the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The great civil rights advocate and inspiring orator is the only American honored with a federal holiday in his name.
But is he really?
Like so many things American, George Washington was the first person to have a national holiday in his honor. Appropriately, Washington’s birthday was first celebrated as a holiday in 1880 in the nation’s capital, which bears his name. When President Chester A. Arthur signed the legislation into law in 1885, George Washington’s birthday became a federal holiday the following February.
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From 1886 until 1971, the holiday was commemorated on Washington’s actual birthdate, February 22. Schools, banks, federal offices and other institutions were closed.
In preparation for the holiday, schoolchildren were told of Washington’s honesty by refusing to lie to his father; they also learned of his alleged youthful ability to throw a dollar coin across the Potomac River. And, of course, they learned how Washington defeated the British army that led to the creation of the United States and his election as the first American president.
The Uniform Monday Holidays Act Moved Washington’s Birthdate
But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holidays Act (UMHA).
The law “sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays,” History.com explains. “The proposed change was seen by many as a novel way to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers, and it was believed that ensuring holidays always fell on the same weekday would reduce employee absenteeism.”
The affected holidays included Columbus Day in October, Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day until 1980, when it was returned to its original historic date of November 11.
“The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s Birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12,” History.com notes. “Lincoln’s Birthday had long been a state holiday in places like Illinois, and many supported joining the two days as a way of giving equal recognition to two of America’s most famous statesmen.”
One would assume that the provision in the UMHA law would have resulted in a separate Washington-Lincoln Day holiday on a Monday close to February 12 and 22. But that never happened.
Instead, Washington’s Birthday and that of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, fell into a presidential pot under the rubric “Presidents Day.” Washington and Lincoln were joined by the likes of Warren G. Harding, William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and the nation’s other chief executives – good, bad or indifferent.
Encyclopedia Britannica Tried without Great Success to Clarify the Presidents’ Day Dilemma
The esteemed Encyclopaedia Britannica tried without great success to clarify the “Where’s Washington?” dilemma. The British publication explained that “Presidents’ Day, officially Washington’s Birthday, [is] popularly recognized as honouring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The day is sometimes understood as a celebration of the birthdays and lives of all U.S. presidents.”
(That’s like noting that in Britain the Queen’s official birthday celebration comes in June, although she was born in April, and the celebration is sometimes understood to include Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Mary Queen of Scots.)
Constitution Daily added to the confusion by observing that “technically, the federal Presidents’ Day commemorates George Washington’s observed birthday.”
Whether honoring one, two, or all American Presidents, by the mid-1980s, “Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents Day,” History.com explains.
Presidents’ Day gained increasing popularity as merchants took advantage of the three-day holiday weekend and changed their traditional (and highly profitable) Washington’s Birthday one-day sales to Presidents’ Day sales throughout the three-day weekend.
During the early 2000s, several bills to restore Washington’s and Lincoln’s actual birthdays as national holidays failed to gain much traction in Congress. By then, about half the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, or simply Presidents Day, sans apostrophe.
US Government Holds Fast to Holiday as a Celebration of the First US President
However, according to a 2018 White House statement, “[D]espite the holiday often being referred to as ‘Presidents’ Day’ in practice, the official federal holiday continues to be known as ‘Washington’s Birthday.’”
For proof, History.com notes that “the federal government has held fast to the original incarnation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president. The third Monday in February is still listed on official calendars as Washington’s Birthday.”
Thus, without nationally recognized holidays for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King has the singular honor of being the only American with a named federal holiday. It is observed on the third Monday closest to Dr. King’s actual birthday, January 15.
This year, the Martin Luther King holiday fell on Monday, January 20. That date is precisely one year from the inauguration of the next President, who will join Washington, Lincoln and the rest of the chief executives as a Presidents Day honoree.