The confusing list of holidays in the United States.

February 15, 2018 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me about the holidays in the United States.  Many visitors to the U.S. are often confused when they see holidays where everything is closed, holidays where some things are closed, and holidays where everything is closed in one place and open somewhere else. I thought this was a good time to explain our unique holiday schedule because on the third Monday in February, we observe Presidents’ Day, our third federal holiday of the year.  This apparent chaos is really a manifestation of the fifty states’ sovereign powers, and the result of the different history, culture, origins, interests, and values of each one.

The United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  Because of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those determined by the United States Congress, and observed in all fifty states, are called federal holidays; and those that have been declared by state and local governments, and are only observed in a specific state, county, or city.  The latter ones are state or local holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few federal holidays, but the states are a different story.

All federal government offices close on federal holidays but the state and local governments remain open unless the federal holiday is also a state holiday.  Federal government offices continue to work on state holidays, and sometimes, only city or county offices may close for the day in observance of a local holiday to honor a local hero or commemorate an event of great importance at the city level. Unless they are government workers, Americans go to work on many holidays. To the foreign observer, a good rule to remember is that on federal holidays, all federal government offices, banks, and the post office will be closed. On state holidays, all state government offices and public schools will be closed. The rest of the American people will have the day off during major federal holidays, and the citizens of a particular state will not have to work on a local holiday, even if the rest of the country does. It is only on major holidays, which are observed at the state and federal level, that everybody enjoys a day away from the workplace.

On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which shifted most holidays to a Monday in the month where the original holiday was observed.  The states followed the same system shortly after.  There are 11 federal holidays in the United States:

New Year’s Day. January 1*

Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Third Monday in January

Presidents’ Day. Third Monday in February

Memorial Day. Last Monday in May*

Juneteenth. June 19 (Starting in 2021)

Independence Day. July 4*

Labor Day. First Monday in September*

Columbus Day. Second Monday in October

Veterans Day. November 11

Thanksgiving Day. Fourth Thursday in November*

Christmas Day. December 25*

*Major federal holidays.

All government offices are closed on them all.

Except for Presidents Day, Veterans Day, and Juneteenth National Independence Day, all 50 states observe the rest of the federal holidays as state holidays. The states that do not observe Presidents Day as a state holiday are:

Delaware

Georgia

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

North Carolina

Rhode Island

Wisconsin

Some states opted out of this holiday because they honor Washington and Lincoln on a different date.

The only state not to observe Veterans Day is Wisconsin. At the inception of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some counties in Arizona considered not observing the holiday.

As of June 2021, Juneteenth is not observed in Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

There are many reasons for the states’ holidays, some are historical, like Mississippi’s Robert E. Lee’s Birthday in January, Hawaii’s King Kamehameha Day in June, or Massachusetts’ Patriots Day in April. Other are cultural, like California’s Cesar Chavez Day in May, or Maryland’s American Indian Heritage Day in November. Other holidays have a practical reason to exist, like Indiana’s Primary Election Day in May, and General Election Day in November; some are for convenience like designating the fourth Friday in November as a holiday, under different names, in many states, and some are religious, like Kansas’ Christmas Eve in December, or Delaware’s Good Friday. There are also local holidays observed in a particular city or county, not the rest of the state. To honor Casimir Pulaski (Kazimierz Pulaski), a War of Independence hero born in Poland, the City of Chicago, and Cook County, Illinois, observe Pulaski Day on the first Monday of every March. On that day, Chicago and Cook County government offices are closed, and children leaving in Chicago do not go to school.

Some states have no state holidays. The following States have no State holidays, only federal:

Arizona

Colorado

Florida

Idaho

Oregon

Wyoming

Also keep in mind there are certain “celebrations in the United States” that are treated like holidays even though they are not: Super Bowl Sunday in February, Cinco de Mayo in May, and St. Patrick’s Day in March are not official holidays and everybody works on those dates.

This is the complete list of all state holidays in the United States by state:

Alabama

Mon Jan 15 Robert E. Lee’s Birthday

Tue Feb 13 Mardi Grass Day

Mon Apr 23 Confederate Memorial Day

Mon Jun 4 Jefferson Davis Birthday

Alaska

Mon Mar 26 Seward’s Day

Thu Oct 18 Alaska Day

Arkansas

Mon Jan 15 Robert E. Lee’s Birthday

Mon Feb 19 Daisy Gatson Bates Day

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

California

Sun Feb 4 Rosa Parks Day

Sat Mar 31 Cesar Chavez Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Connecticut

Mon Feb 12 Lincoln’s Birthday

Fri Mar 31 Good Friday

Delaware

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Thu Nov 8 Return Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

District of Columbia

Mon Apr 16 DC Emancipation Day

Georgia

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Mon Apr 23 Confederate Memorial Day

Fri Nov 23 Georgia State Holiday

Mon Dec 24 Washington’s Birthday Holiday (Following year on Dec 26)

Hawaii

Mon Mar 26 Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Mon June 11 King Kamehameha Day

Fri Aug 17 Statehood Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Illinois

Mon Feb 12 Lincoln’s Birthday

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Indiana

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Tue May 8 Primary Election Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Fri Nov 23 Lincoln’s Birthday Holiday

Mon Dec 24 Washington’s Birthday Holiday (Following year on Dec 26)

Iowa

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Kansas

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Kentucky

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Mon Dec 31 New Year’s Eve

Louisiana

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Tue Feb 13 Mardi Gras Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Maine

Mon Apr 16 Patriots Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Maryland

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Fri Nov 23 American Indian Heritage Day

Massachusetts

Mon Apr 16 Patriots Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Michigan

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Mon Dec 31 New Year’s Eve

Minnesota

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mississippi

Mon Jan 15 Robert E. Lee’s Birthday

Mon Apr 30 Confederate Memorial Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Missouri

Mon Feb 12 Lincoln’s Birthday

Tue May 8 Truman Day

Montana

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

Nebraska

Fri Apr 27 Arbor Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Nevada

Fri Oct 26 Nevada Day

Fri Nov 23 Family Day

New Hampshire

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

New Jersey

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

New Mexico

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Presidents Day Holiday

New York

Mon Feb 12 Lincoln’s Birthday

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

North Carolina

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Wed Dec 26 Christmas Holiday

North Dakota

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Ohio

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Sat Dec 1 Rosa Parks Day

Oklahoma

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Wed Dec 26 Christmas Holiday

Pennsylvania

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Rhode Island

*Does not observe Presidents Day

Mon Aug 13 Victory Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Tue Nov 6 General Election Day

South Carolina

Thu May 10 Confederate Memorial Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Wed Dec 26 Christmas Holiday

South Dakota

Mon Oct 8 Native American Day

Tennessee

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Wed Dec 26 Christmas Holiday

Texas

Fri Jan 19 Confederate Heroes Day

Fri Mar 2 Texas Independence Day

Fri Mar 30 Good Friday

Sat Mar 31 Cesar Chávez Day

Sat Apr 21 San Jacinto Day

Tue Jun 19 Juneteenth

Mon Aug 27 Lyndon B Johnson Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Wed Dec 26 Christmas Holiday

Utah

Tue Jul 24 Pioneer Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Vermont

Tue Mar 6 Town Meeting Day

Thu Aug 16 Bennington Battle Day

Virginia

Fri Jan 12 Lee-Jackson Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

WashingtonFri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

West VirginiaWed Jun 20 West Virginia Day

Mon Oct 8 Columbus Day

Fri Nov 23 Thanksgiving Friday

Wisconsin*Does not observe Presidents Day

*Does not observe Veterans Day

Mon Dec 24 Christmas Eve

Mon Dec 31 New Year’s Eve

I hope this brief explanation, and comprehensive holiday list, help you to understand better the holiday calendar of the United States. I now invite you to comment on this subject.

What is Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  We have had forty five presidents in our country, and people often ask if we honor them all on this day. The answer is no. Let me explain.

The United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and they observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday”, we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

The languages spoken in the White House.

February 15, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Monday the United States observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.  Currently the United States is in the middle of a presidential political campaign and only two of all major candidates, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and former Governor Jeb Bush, also from the same state, are fluent in a second language: Spanish.

George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish.  According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States.  He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works.  This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin.  President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French.  President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English.  Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent.  President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency.  John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families.  I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here.  I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language. I now invite you to share with the rest of us any story you may know about the foreign languages spoken by a President or First Lady of the United States.

The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

What do Americans celebrate on Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  As you know, the United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday” we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique and diverse holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

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