Presidents' Day Trivia

Presidents' Day (or President's Day) is the common name of a United States federal holiday scheduled to be celebrated on the third Monday in February every year, and one of eleven permanent holidays established by Congress. On that day, federal government offices are closed and many state offices, public schools, and businesses optionally follow suit.

Presidents' Day is actually not the official name of this holiday, which is just one of several pieces of trivia about this welcome winter three-day weekend celebrated widely in the United States.

of 08

Not Officially Presidents' Day

Mount Rushmore National Monument
Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February is not officially called Presidents' Day: its official name is "Washington's Birthday," after the first American president, George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732 (according to the Gregorian calendar).

There have been a few attempts to officially rename Washington's Birthday "Presidents' Day," in 1951 and again in 1968, but those suggestions died in committee. Many states, however, choose to call their own celebration on this day "Presidents' Day."

of 08

Doesn't Fall on Washington's Birthday

Calendar and Old Watch
Getty / Marco Marchi

The holiday was first implemented as a day honoring George Washington by an act of Congress in 1879, and in 1885 it was expanded to include all federal offices. Up until 1971, it was celebrated on the actual date of his birth, February 22. In 1971, the observance of the holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. That allows federal workers and others observing federal holidays to have a three-day weekend, and one that doesn't interfere with the normal work week. But, that means the federal holiday for Washington always falls between February 15th and 21st, never on Washington's birthday.

Actually, Washington was born before the Gregorian calendar came into effect, and the day he was born the entire British Empire was still using the Julian calendar. Under that calendar, Washington's birthday falls on February 11, 1732. Several alternative dates to celebrate President's day have been suggested over the years — in particular, March 4, the original inauguration day was suggested — but none has yet been implemented.

of 08

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday Is Not a Federal Holiday

Abraham Lincoln
Wikimedia Commons

Many states celebrate the 16th president Abraham Lincoln's birthday concurrently with Washington's birthday. But although there have been several attempts to make the actual date, February 12th, a federally-designated separate holiday, those attempts have all failed. Lincoln's birthdate falls only 10 days before Washington's and two federal holidays in a row would be, um, wrong.

Many states at one time celebrated Lincoln's actual birthday. Today only nine states have public holidays for Lincoln: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and West Virginia, and not all of them celebrate on the actual date. Kentucky is not one of those states, despite being where Lincoln was born.

of 08

Washington's Birthday Celebration Events

Portrait of George Washington
Public Domain

Many of the newly-formed United States celebrated Washington's Birthday beginning in the 18th century while Washington was still alive — he died in 1799.

The centennial of his birth in 1832 prompted celebrations across the country; and in 1932, the Bicentennial Commission sent out an abundance of material suggesting events to be held at schools. Suggestions included appropriate music (marches, popular ballads, and patriotic selections) and "living pictures." In entertainment, popular among adults in the 19th century, participants would assemble themselves into "tableaux" on a stage. A spotlight would be lit, and in 1932, the students would freeze in a pattern based on various themes on Washington's life ("The Young Surveyor," "At Valley Forge," The Washington Family").

The historical park Mount Vernon, which was Washington's home while he was President, celebrates his birthday with a wreath-laying at his tomb, and speeches by reenactors playing George and his wife Martha as well as other members of his family.

of 08

Cherries, Cherries, and More Cherries

Cherry Pie is a traditional dessert for Washington's Birthday.
Getty Images / Westend61

Traditionally, many people have celebrated and continue to celebrate Washington's birthday with desserts made with cherries. Cherry pie, cherry cake, bread made with cherries, or just a huge bowl of cherries are often enjoyed on this day.

Of course, this relates to the apocryphal story invented by Mason Locke Weems (a.k.a. "Parson Weems") that as a boy Washington confessed to his father that he chopped down a cherry tree because he "could not tell a lie." Or rather in stumbling iambic pentameter written by Weems: "If somebody must be whipped, let it be me/for it was I and not Jerry, that cut the cherry tree."

of 08

Shopping and Sales

President's Day is traditionally a sale day in America.
Getty Images / Grady Coppell

One thing that many people connect with Presidents' Day is retail sales. In the 1980s, retailers began to use this holiday as a time to clear out their old stock in preparation for spring and summer. One wonders what George Washington would have thought about this celebration of his birthday.

The President's Day sales was one preferred outcome of the Uniform Holiday Act. Many of its corporate supporters suggested that moving federal holidays to Mondays would promote business. Retail businesses began staying open on the holiday for special Washington's Birthday sales events. Other businesses and the U.S. Post Office have decided to stay open, and so have some schools.

of 08

Reading of Washington's Farewell Address

Mount Vernon, George Washington's Home
Martin Kelly

On February 22nd, 1862 (130 years after Washington's birth), the House and Senate celebrated by reading aloud his Farewell Speech to Congress. The event became a more-or-less regular event in the U.S. Senate beginning in 1888.

The Congress read the Farewell Address in the middle of the American Civil War, as a way to boost morale. This address was and is so important because it warns of political factionalism, geographical sectionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation's affairs. Washington stressed the importance of national unity over sectional differences.

of 08


Photo of George Washington’s signed copy of the US Constitution
Win McNamee / Getty Images
  • Anonymous. 2016. George Washington's Birthday. The Center for Legislative Archives, The United States National Archives. Last updated August 24, 2016; downloaded on December 17, 2017.
  • Bynum R. 1933. The Celebration of Washington's Birthday. The English Journal 22(2):133-137.
  • Weems ML. 1800 [2001] The Life of Washington. Cambridge MA: Harvard University
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Presidents' Day Trivia." Learn Religions, Feb. 16, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, February 16). Presidents' Day Trivia. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Presidents' Day Trivia." Learn Religions. (accessed June 14, 2021).

Watch Now: Annual Holidays and Special Days in February