Originally, Presidents Day honored just one president – our first, George Washington, who was born on Feb. 22, 1732 (or Feb. 11 if you go by the Old Style calendar). We knew it simply as Washington’s Birthday.
As the Washington Post reports, “Washington’s Birthday” remains the official designation:
“Washington’s Birthday,” according to the government, “is observed the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States. This date is commonly called Presidents’ Day and many groups honor the legacy of past presidents on this date.”
So which is it? There is no widespread consensus.
Here, in Arizona, our state officially name drops both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in its Presidents’ Day celebration.
Other states invariably make use of the names of Washington, Lincoln, and/or Thomas Jefferson.
Still others dispense with names altogether, simply adding the apostrophe at the end of “Presidents” in an effort to honor the office of the presidency itself and all those who have held it.
This is our ‘slightly strange’ holiday.
In 2014, the Washington Post characterized Presidents Day as “slightly strange,” which probably is the right characterization. Independence Day on July 4 – and what the holiday means to all of us – is set in stone.
Not so with Presidents Day.
If the goal is to honor George Washington’s birthday, which actually takes place next week on Feb. 22, then Feb. 15 is the wrong date to celebrate. If the goal is to honor George Washington as our nation’s first president, then the widespread shift to “Presidents’ Day” waters things down quite a bit.
This leads to a bigger question.
Should we honor American history’s arguable darlings – presidents like Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson – or be more inclusive of all 43 presidents who have held the nation’s highest office?
Our vote is for inclusivity.
We are at this very moment engaged in a slightly strange (some might say very strange) presidential campaign leading up to the vote on Nov. 8, which has much of the nation’s attention. In fact, the office of the presidency nearly always has much of the nation’s attention, no matter who occupies the White House.
Presidents Day should be a time to reflect on the importance of the office and to accord at least a baseline level of respect that every president – Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative – deserves as the elected leader of our nation.