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It's still Washington's birthday and not president's day

President George Washington
National Archives

Monday, February 17, 2014 is a holiday celebrated by closing the federal government. It is also the day for many sales in stores around the country and, by the bulk of local newspapers touting the sales, more ink is used for the sales ads than acknowledging the purpose of the holiday.

George Washington's Birthday is now celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February. It is one of eleven permanent holidays established by Congress.

But, just because it is a federal holiday, doesn't mean that everyone will get the day off. Many, perhaps most people, will still be working. Clerks will be out in force in many stores, restaurants will be busy and car lots will be screaming about the great sales to be had for a limited time only.

The term "federal holiday" only applies to the federal government and the District of Columbia. Contrary to what many may believe, Congress has never declared a national holiday that is binding in all states. Each state decides its own legal holidays.

George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731. That is misleading though because that date was according to the Julian calendar used at that time. In 1752, Britain and its colonies began using the Gregorian calendar, probably because the Julian calendar introduced an error of one day every 128 years. The change to the Gregorian calendar moved Washington's birthday to February 22, 1732.

Washington's Birthday become a legal holiday January 31, 1879. At that time, Congress added February 22nd to the list of holidays to be observed by federal employees in the District of Columbia. The new law did not require that employees be paid for the holiday so some just got the day off.

A few years later, in 1885, Congress apparently decided this was not the best way to celebrate the holiday and passed legislation requiring that federal employees be paid for all federal holidays. Congress also made federal holidays applicable to all federal government employees and not just those in the Washington, DC area.

So many federal employees were absent on certain days that, in 1870, Congress followed the lead of states surrounding Washington, DC and formally declared New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day as federal holidays in the District of Columbia.

Before 1971, Washington's Birthday was one of nine federal holidays that were celebrated on specific dates appropriate to the occasion that was being commemorated. This meant that the holidays fell on different days of the week each year.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill. This act moved a number of federal holidays to Mondays. The law was designed to schedule affected holidays so that federal employees and other American workers had more long weekends throughout the year. Congress voted to move three existing holidays to Mondays and expanded the number of federal holidays by making Columbus Day another federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October.

During the Congressional debate on this new concept, it was proposed that Washington’s Birthday be renamed Presidents’ Day to honor the birthdays of both Washington (February 22) and Lincoln (February 12) although Lincoln’s birthday was never an official federal holiday.

The "President's day" name change was not incorporated into the law but that became the common name after the bill became effective in 1971.

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