Is it George Washington’s holiday or do we celebrate all 45 presidents?

(Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty)

Is it George Washington’s holiday or do we celebrate all 45 presidents?

On Ed

Virginia Heffernan

February 19, 2024

On calendars it’s President’s Day, or no apostrophe: President’s Day. To the federal government: It’s Washington’s birthday. But California is really getting festive. California lists the holiday as the third Monday in February.”

Banks, schools and non-essential government offices are closed. Most of us have a day off. But does anyone really celebrate this occasion that goes by more than a dozen different names depending on what state you’re in?

Primerrily, an anti-woke site for patriotic families, encourages kids to use their Monday off to bake presidential treats like Zachary Taylor’s beignets and Grover Cleveland’s Snickerdoodles. The site also suggests that children sing the presidential anthem.

Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation / In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call!

That is a text that few can live up to. In an age when many of us vow not to cooperate with the president but to thwart him at every opportunity, Hail to the Chief no longer makes sense. Or even seems to belong to it


the playlist at all.

Celebrating all the presidents in one day is impractical, regardless of your political leanings. In fact, the transformation of Washington’s birthday into Presidents Day seems to have eroded the holiday’s meaning altogether, making it more synonymous with mattress sales than with the

46 45


// there have been 46 presidencies, but 45 presidents see Grover Cleveland jpenner //

who happen to have served, for better or worse, as the country’s president for the past 235 years.


The reason for the holiday is that George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, almost 300 years ago. Washington is of course the father of our country, a patriarch squared. Also, of course, a slave trader and usurper of indigenous lands. At the time of his death he personally held 123 people in slavery.

He was a general and statesman. After leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington oversaw the drafting of the Constitution, established the federal government, and served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797.

He’s a guy worth considering. He carried out the obligations of the Declaration of Independence, which rejected monarchy and stated that all men are created equal. Then the constitution he signed dropped the principle of equality and ennobled property rights, treating some people as property.

One way to spend the holiday might be to discuss Washington’s divisive legacy. Or maybe just text someone about it? And at least beignets.

Like Shakespeare, who was not revered as the English GOAT until some 150 years after his death, Washington was not immediately dubbed the full American GOAT. In 1869, his face was engraved on the dollar bill. In 1879 his birthday became a national holiday. The Washington Monument was completed in 1884.

All that followed the Civil War. Celebrating Washington therefore commemorated not only the founding of the nation, but also its re-founding. We have revisited the national myth-making that was intended to bring the Union back together after it was torn apart.

After all, Washington was Southern, a son of Virginia, where the headquarters of the Confederacy was located. Canonizing him immediately after the Civil War, with a monument designed by Robert Mills of South Carolina, can be seen as an attempt to reassure the fractured nation that the United States did not belong solely to abolitionists and industrialists, who so recently had won. war. Southern farmers also made the nation.

But in the 1870s, another dead folk hero, very different and much more controversial, rose onto the charts just as Washington was getting its dollars.

In 1873 or 1874, Julius Francis, a druggist in Buffalo, NY, began celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. He petitioned Congress to make it a federal holiday, but today only California, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri and New York celebrate it


as a self-catering holiday. (In California, it usually comes down to closed courtrooms.) Four other states include Lincoln, with Washington included


third event on Mondays in February, with the occasion being called Washington Lincoln Day (Colorado, Ohio), Washingtons and Lincolns Birthday (Minnesota), and Washington and Lincolns Day (Utah).

Celebrated in February, Black History Month also has its roots in the 19th century celebration of Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ birthday on the 14th.

In one year, 1939, Washington’s birthday was claimed by American Nazis, who held a veritable Americanism event in New York City on February 20 with an image of the first president flanked by swastikas and the Stars and Stripes.

Several idiosyncratic states will go their own way in February. Alabama omits Lincoln and gives the third Monday to Washington and fellow Southerner Thomas Jefferson, even though Jefferson was born in April. Nine states don’t have it on their official calendars at all, including Florida, North Carolina, and Kentucky (where Lincoln was born).

However, most people know the day as President’s Day, with or without the apostrophe, which seems to wander aimlessly. Somehow you can place huzzah for Washington and/or Lincoln, or any president, on the placemat.

But even taking into account Apostrophe Confusion Syndrome, on many holidays dogs actually mostly talked about the big guy.

And it’s not Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce or John Tyler. It’s not who you vote for in November.

It’s Washington.

Still, t

The man himself has told Americans to guard against the deception of so-called patriotism, so go easy on the powdered wigs.

And then there’s Washington’s memorable description of a bad bed: together, a Little StrawMatted [and] one Thread Bear blanket with double the weight of pests such as lice and fleas, etc.

A new mattress might be the best way to celebrate.

Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to Wired and writes a newsletter, Magic and Loss, at


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