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Presidents Day 2023: What are the origins and why is it celebrated on 20 February?

Monday 20 February 2023 marks the annual celebration of the Presidents of the United States, but why is the holiday held on that date and where does it come from?

Monday 20 February marks the annual celebration of the Presidents of the United States, but why is the holiday held on that date and where does it come from?
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This year Presidents Day is being celebrated on Monday 20 February and many private businesses and public institutions will be taking the day off to mark the occasion. Presidents Day is one of 11 federal holidays to be held during 2023 but not everyone knows the origin of the celebration and the reason for its constantly changing date. Here’s everything you need to know…

What are the origins of Presidents Day?

The origins of Presidents Day can be found more than two centuries ago and began with the death of President George Washington in 1799. In the 19th century Washington was celebrated as the most important character in American history and his birthdate, 22 February, became a day of remembrance. In 1832, for example, the centennial of his birthday was a major occasion and his legend was further venerated in 1848 with the start of the construction of the Washington Monument.

However it was not until the late 1870s that there was a real push for Washington’s birthday to become a federal holiday. That idea was first proposed by Sen. Stephen Wallace Dorsey and in 1879 then-President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law.

For the initial few years the holiday was restricted to the District of Columbia but in 1885 it was expanded to become a national holiday. It was only the fifth holiday to enjoy such garlanded status, following Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

Presidents Day was the first federal holiday to celebrate the life and achievements of a single American. To this day only George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. enjoy that status.

Note: although there are variations on how to write this day, and there is an argument about Washington’s singularity, Benjamin Dreyer is one who agrees with our chosen style.

Why does the date of Presidents Day change every year?

Although the holiday is integrally connected to Washington the tradition has since been broadened to include the achievements of all presidents. Washington’s birthday was originally chosen for the holiday but a legislative change in 1968 meant that the exact date now varies each year.

The Uniform Monday Holidays Bill was passed by Congress in 1968 and it ensured that certain holidays would fall on a Monday. The logic behind this move was sound; Congress wanted to reward American workers with more long weekends, understanding that a Monday holiday was of greater value than a midweek break.

While Congress debated the Uniform Monday Holidays Bill it was actually suggested that the Washington’s Birthday holiday be renamed as Presidents Day, to honour both Washington and President Abraham Lincoln. This suggestion was initially rejected but soon after the bill went into effect in 1971, Presidents Day became the commonly accepted name.


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