What's the Meaning of Presidents' Day?

Learn about the elusive, patriotic February holiday

Photo: Courtesy Gordon Ashby/Getty Images

We learned about it in school, didn't we? Presidents' Day…it has to do with U.S. Presidents? Something about birthdays? Yes to all of the above. Let's delve into our nation's history and demystify this February holiday once and for all.

Each year on the third Monday of February, we celebrate Presidents' Day in the U.S. The holiday was established by Congress to recognize the birthday of our first President, George Washington, who was born in Virginia on February 22, 1732. The holiday originally was established in 1855 and was celebrated on February 22 each year. Many states also celebrated the birthday Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, in conjunction with Washington's birthday. Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809.

In 1968, however, the date of Presidents' Day was changed in order to align more federal holidays with Mondays—and, therefore, create more three-day weekends. (We have the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which took effect in 1971, to thank for those long weekends—and the road trips we plan in conjunction with our Memorial Day and Veterans Day holidays.) The reasoning for the act—which was H.R. 15951 and is now Public Law 90-363—reads, "This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours."

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also established Columbus Day as a U.S. Federal Holiday, proclaiming, "This new holiday will henceforth honor one of our finest and most cherished national characteristics—our ability to live and work together, men and women of all national origins, as one united and progressive nation."

Washington, one of our most beloved Founding Fathers, left us many lessons that still ring true 220 years after he left office, among them: "Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all." You can find more Washington wisdom in the President's Farewell Address, which was published in September of 1796.

We recognize our first President in many ways—on currency, statues, portraits, and this holiday. Also, in one of the more memorable memorials, Washington is carved into South Dakota's Mount Rushmore along with Presidents Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, and Jefferson. We still celebrate the holiday as Washington's birthday, but, widely, it has evolved into a day to celebrate all of our past Presidents and the ways in which they shaped our country with vision and dignity. It's also a perfect time to visit one of the South's extraordinary national parks, so plan a trip soon!

For long-weekend travel ideas and patriotic party inspiration, explore southernliving.com.

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