Most Americans on Monday will mark the so-called Presidents’ Day holiday by enjoying a three-day weekend and taking advantage of the occasional retail sale.
But, contrary to popular belief, on a national level there is no such thing as Presidents’ Day. The federal holiday is officially called “Washington’s Birthday,” and it celebrates George Washington, the country’s first commander-in-chief.
It has kept the name since its establishment as a legal holiday in 1879, and no Congress has ever moved to rename it “Presidents’ Day,” according to the Center for Legislative Archives. (It’s also not a “national holiday,” as that concept doesn’t really exist either; in the U.S., legal holidays must be established separately by the states and the federal government.) George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. are the only two Americans whose birthdays are federal holidays in the U.S.
Washington’s birthday was observed every year as a federal holiday on Feb. 22 — his recognized date of birth — up until 1968, when Congress passed a law to celebrate the first president on the third Monday in February instead.
The change was part of an effort to create more three-day weekends to spur “the spiritual and economic life of the nation,” Congress noted, even though that meant the holiday could technically no longer be commemorated on Washington’s actual birthday.
Some individual states, however, have changed the name of the holiday as it affects state employees, choosing to call it the more general name in order to honor Washington’s fellow February baby, Abraham Lincoln.