Presidents’ Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. Originally established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington, it is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. Traditionally celebrated on February 22—Washington’s actual day of birth—the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents’ Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present.
Presidents’ Day: Origin as Washington’s Birthday
The story of Presidents’ Day date begins in 1800. Following President George Washington’s death in 1799, his February 22 birthday became a perennial day of remembrance. At the time, Washington was venerated as the most important figure in American history, and events like the 1832 centennial of his birth and the start of construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 were cause for national celebration.
While Washington’s Birthday was an unofficial observance for most of the 1800s, it was not until the late 1870s that it became a federal holiday. Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas was the first to propose the measure, and in 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. The holiday initially only applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the whole country. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays—Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving—and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, signed into law in 1983, would be the second.
Presidents’ Day: The Uniform Monday Holiday Act
The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day began in the late 1960s when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Championed by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois this law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. 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. While some argued that shifting holidays from their original dates would cheapen their meaning, the bill also had widespread support from both the private sector and labor unions and was seen as a surefire way to bolster retail sales.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s Birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s, which fell on the proximate date of February 12. 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.
McClory was among the measure’s major proponents, and he even floated the idea of renaming the holiday “President’s Day.” This proved to be a point of contention for lawmakers from George Washington’s home state of Virginia, and the proposal was eventually dropped. Nevertheless, the main piece of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed in 1968 and officially took effect in 1971 following an executive order from President Richard Nixon. Washington’s Birthday was then shifted from the fixed date of February 22 to the third Monday of February. Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day were also moved from their traditionally designated dates. (As a result of widespread criticism, in 1980 Veterans’ Day was returned to its original November 11 date.)
Presidents’ Day: Transformation
While Nixon’s order plainly called the newly placed holiday Washington’s Birthday, it was not long before the shift to Presidents’ Day began. The move away from February 22 led many to believe that the new date was intended to honor both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as it now fell between their two birthdays. Marketers soon jumped at the opportunity to play up the three-day weekend with sales, and “Presidents’ Day” bargains were advertised at stores around the country.
By the mid-1980s Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents’ Day. This shift had solidified in the early 2000s, by which time as many as half the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents’ Day on their calendars. Some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents’ Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).
Washington and Lincoln still remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents’ Day is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. Some lawmakers have objected to this view, arguing that grouping George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together with less successful presidents minimizes their legacies. Congressional measures to restore Washington and Lincoln’s individual birthdays were proposed during the early 2000s, but all failed to gain much attention. For its part, 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.
Presidents’ Day: Celebrations and Traditions
Like Independence Day, Presidents’ Day is traditionally viewed as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance. In its original incarnation as Washington’s Birthday, the holiday gained special meaning during the difficulties of the Great Depression, when portraits of George Washington often graced the front pages of newspapers and magazines every February 22. In 1932 the date was used to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military decoration originally created by George Washington to honor soldiers killed or wounded while serving in the armed forces. Patriotic groups and the Boy Scouts of America also held celebrations on the day, and in 1938 some 5,000 people attended mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in honor of Washington.
In its modern form, Presidents’ Day is used by many patriotic and historical groups as a date for staging celebrations, reenactments and other events. A number of states also require that their public schools spend the days leading up to Presidents’ Day teaching students about the accomplishments of the presidents, often with a focus on the lives of Washington and Lincoln.
President’s Day never falls on the actual birthday of any American president. Four chief executives—George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan were born in February, but their birthdays all come either too early or late to coincide with Presidents’ Day, which is always celebrated on the third Monday of the month.
Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.
The Legend of St. Valentine
The history of Valentine’s Day–and the story of its patron saint–is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and–most importantly–romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Origins of Valentine’s Day: A Pagan Festival in February
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270–others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Valentine’s Day: A Day of Romance
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt . (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Typical Valentine’s Day Greetings
In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.
Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.) Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.
Approximately 150 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, making Valentine’s Day the second most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas.
Groundhog Day falls on February 2 in the United States, coinciding with Candlemas. It is a part of popular culture among many Americans and it centers on the idea of the groundhog coming out of its home to “predict” the weather.
What Do People Do?
Groundhog Day is a popular observance in many parts of the United States. Although some states have in some cases adopted their own groundhogs, the official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, lives at Gobbler’s Knob near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The town has attracted thousands of visitors over the years to experience various Groundhog Day events and activities on February 2.
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club plays an important role in organizing Groundhog Day in the town. Club members, news reporters, locals, and visitors meet at Gobbler’s Knob on February 2 each year to await Phil’s appearance and his weather prediction. Pennsylvania’s governor has been known to attend Groundhog Day ceremonies. Many weather researchers questioned the groundhog’s accuracy in predicting the weather, but some of the groundhog’s fans may not agree.
Groundhog Day is an observance but it is not a public holiday in the United States. However, areas around parks and some streets may be busy or congested in towns, such as Punxsutawney, where Groundhog Day events are popular.
Roots in Nature
Thousands of years ago when animalism and nature worship were prevalent, people in the area of Europe now known as Germany believed that the badger had the power to predict the coming of spring. They watched the badger to know when to plant their crops. By the time the first German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania they probably understood that this was not true but the tradition continued.
Unfortunately, there were not many badgers in Pennsylvania so the groundhog was substituted for the badger. Tradition has it that if the groundhog sees its shadow on February 2 it will be frightened by it and will then return to its burrow, indicating that there will be 6 more weeks of winter. If it does not see its shadow, then spring is on the way.
Punxsutawney held its first Groundhog Day in the United States in the 1800s. The first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob was made on February 2, 1887. It is said that Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) was named after King Phillip. He was called Br’er Groundhog prior to being known as Phil. Canada also celebrates Groundhog Day.
The movie “Groundhog Day” from 1993, starring comedian Bill Murray, made Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania famous worldwide. The film’s plot added new meaning to the term “Groundhog Day” as something that repeats itself endlessly.