Saturday, February 18, 2023


As holidays go, "Presidents Day" definitely promises more than it delivers. To start with, the official, legal holiday (both federal and New York State) is still Washington's Birthday. Of course, George Washington's actual birthday is February 22, and it was duly celebrated as a holiday on that date until 1970. Then, presumably in order to give federal employees a three-day weekend, the unfortunate Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 moved Washington's official birthday to the third Monday in February, which is always the Monday before February 22. The new holiday soon became known as "Presidents Day" (sometime with, sometimes without an apostrophe, further evidence, if any were needed, of its confusing character). 

When I was growing up in school in the 1950s and early 1960s, February was the "Month of the Presidents," two presidents in particular. In addition to Washington, many states celebrated a legal state holiday on February 12, Lincoln's Birthday. Many mistakenly think the two were somehow officially merged when "Presidents Day" was created. In fact, Abraham Lincoln's birthday was never a federal holiday. So the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 could hardly have merged it into anything. I suppose some of the states where Lincoln's Birthday was a holiday may have done so. But, at least the last time I checked, Lincoln's Birthday was still an official legal holiday here in New York, albeit a barely noticed one, if noticed at all. The NYC public schools no longer observe it. Nor technically do they observe Washington's Birthday or "Presidents Day," having replaced them with a week-long "Midwinter Recess."

They'd all probably be better off staying in school that week. And, if they also learned something about our presidents during that week, so much the better. Of course, one of the inevitable and obviously foreseeable consequences of the unfortunate Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 was the dilution of whatever historical and cultural consciousness accompanied our civic holidays, turning them into, at best, merely leisure time opportunities and, at worst, occasions for commercial sales and orgies of shopping. Undoubtedly workers deserve leisure time, and I have not quarrel per se with long weekends, but rather with the loss of holidays' historical and civic significance. In any case, apart from government employees, it seems a lot of people nowadays have to work on days like "Presidents Day" anyway!

As the ill-fated French Revolutionaries learned in their time, tinkering with calendars can be risky at best and will likely fail in the end. That said, perhaps a desirable solution to the holiday dilemma would be, first, to keep as full holidays only the few that are actually widely observed as days of leisure by most workers, - e.g., New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Then, in the other months - February, March, April, June, August, October - simply to create a monthly artificial holiday - say on the second or third Monday of the month - and somehow make it possible for most workers really to get the day off and enjoy a leisurely long weekend. As for the other civic holidays - e.g., Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln's Birthday, Washington's Birthday, Juneteenth, Columbus Day, Veterans Day - let them be observed in schools and churches and by social and civic organizations in ways that publicly call attention to their historical importance and real significance, sparing them the indignity of being turned mainly into excuses for special sales in stores!

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