Is it President’s Day or Presidents’ Day?
Do we just celebrate one commander in chief or many?
Is it George Washington we honor or Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Or do we honor all the presidents? After all, The Associated Press Stylebook calls it Presidents Day.
The answer could be found at any of Utah’s liquor stores. But ever those establishments seemed to be mired in confusion.
The February edition of American History Magazine has an intriguing essay by historian Richard Brookhiser about the origin and history of the national holiday we are celebrating Monday.
Actually, as Brookhiser points out, the holiday is an official recognition of the birthday of our first president, George Washington. Thus, it properly would be called President’s Day, since it pays homage to just one president.
But congressional actions and a variety of versions of the holiday’s names in ads and official notices raise more questions than answers.
Washington’s birthday actually falls on Feb. 22, but even that has a confusing element to it. He was born Feb. 11, 1731. But when Britain and the colonies changed their observances from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, his birthday was moved to Feb. 22.
Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday was declared a federal holiday by Congress in the latter part of the 19th century and that was the official holiday, no matter what day of the week it fell on. Lincoln was added to the mix of observances, although his birthday was never an official federal holiday. Schoolchildren for years would have classroom exercises honoring Washington on Feb. 22 and Lincoln on his birthday, Feb. 12.
Things got more mixed up when, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans Day to the closest Monday for each of those holidays.
Because schoolchildren had celebrated Lincoln as well as Washington in their classrooms, the move to Monday and away from Washington’s actual birthday was seen as a consolidation of Washington and Lincoln and was popularly called Presidents Day. It still, however, is officially Washington’s birthday.
Utah seemed to be keeping up fine with all that until last year, when, just days before the holiday, Gov. Gary Herbert’s office issued an edict that the signs at the liquor stores letting patrons know they would be closed on Presidents Day should be removed and changed to Washington and Lincoln Day.
Herbert, facing a Republican convention fight for his re-election bid last year, had written on his Facebook page at about the same time as the sign change at the liquor stores that he hoped the occupant of the White House at that time would not be there the next year.
That led to speculation that Herbert had, at the last minute, ordered the Presidents Day signs removed so no one would get the mistaken idea the state was honoring President Barack Obama.
There was some legitimacy to the change, however, since the Utah Legislature, a year earlier, had passed a state law declaring the holiday in the Beehive State would be known as Washington and Lincoln Day. And Herbert’s office was reacting to a call from Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, that the signs should say Washington and Lincoln day to be consistent with state law.
But this year, strangely, the closure signs in the liquor stores were back to “President’s Day.” DABC spokeswoman Vickie Ashby says that was an oversight and the proper signs will be used in future years.
But with no election on the horizon and Obama already secure for another four years, the sense of urgency for putting the politically correct signs in the liquor stores seems to be gone.