Happy birthday(s), Mr. President
When George Washington took office as the first President of the United States, Americans began celebrating his birthday. His actual date of birth, however, was tough to determine back then. England used a Julian-style calendar until 1752; according to it, Washington’s birthday was February 11. According to the Gregorian calendar that we all use today, however, his birthday was February 22. In 1880, Congress made that date a federal holiday, the first to honor an individual.
Take the day off
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, which created as many three-day weekends as possible (instead of having random federal holidays in the middle of the work-week). As a result, Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February—even though that’s not always his actual DOB.
What’s in a name?
Note that, technically, the name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday. While the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill was being debated, some legislators introduced the idea of renaming the celebration to Presidents’ Day in order to honor both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday was February 12. The change was rejected, although Presidents’ Day is used frequently today anyway—mostly by retailers using both great men’s birthdays as an excuse to have a sale. Because it’s not the official name of the holiday, there’s no right way to spell it: Presidents Day, President’s Day, and Presidents’ Day are all used.
How senators celebrate
Legislators gave us this day off, but how do they spend the third Monday in February? In 1862, the Senate read Washington’s Farewell Address in order to boost morale during the Civil War—and they’ve read it every year since. A new senator is selected every year, alternating between Democrats and Republicans, to read the speech. When it’s over, they sign their names in a record kept by the Secretary of the Senate. Why not read the address with your kids?