Good news! This coming Monday is Presidents’ Day, which is, hands-down, the oldest American holiday that everyone forgets about until the week before. It’s a happy accident on the calendar. It’s like finding money in your sofa.
“I found a quarter! Oh, that’s right. George Washington.”
The holiday was formed to celebrate George Washington, who is, to date, the only U.S. president that most Americans can name when asked to name the presidents in order. He’s also the only president whose pictures most of us have in our wallets. I don’t carry around pictures of my kids, but I have at least four pictures of Washington.
Point is, we’re not sure exactly when George Washington was born, but we know it was a Monday. That’s for sure. There was definitely leining at his bris.
Is that true? For me, Presidents’ Day has always raised all kinds of questions that I never actually asked as a kid because I was just happy there were no secular studies that day and I didn’t want to do anything to jinx it. For example, why do we have a day to celebrate presidents when we already have a day to celebrate the country? Don’t presidents come with the country? Is it not just for presidents of the country? Are we also celebrating the presidents of various corporations, like on Secretaries’ Day, when we celebrate receptionists plus the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and the secretary of commerce?
I’m assuming. I’ve never sent them anything.
And why is there no Vice Presidents’ Day?
Also, why are we only celebrating George Washington? Though I guess maybe that’s because he was the only president who was voted in unanimously. Any other president would be celebrated by, at most, the people whose ancestors voted for him. But Washington ran unopposed. He’d just defeated the British, so nobody dared run against him.
Other Candidate: “In addition to being governor of my colony, I was also chief of the Shoshone Tribe, despite not even being Native American. Also, I use words like “Native American,” which is anachronistic but politically correct.”
George Washington: “I defeated the British in the middle of the night in the dead of winter by sneaking up on them in the snow wearing newspapers on my feet.”
Other Candidate: “… I would like to concede the race to my opponent.”
But what about Lincoln? Sometimes you see him mentioned in relation to this holiday, and sometimes you don’t. What’s up with that? Does the South celebrate Lincoln? What about the other presidents with birthdays in February, such as Reagan and Harrison? Shouldn’t it be like Tachanun in a chassidishe shtiebel, so that every time we get a new president, we get a new day? There should be, by my count, 45 days of the year that we don’t have secular studies.
That’s what I would have said as a kid, but also now, as an English teacher.
Also, as an English teacher, I really have to know: Is it Presidents’ Day, Presidents Day, or President’s Day? And what about Fathers’ Day? (Father’s Day?) This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Actually, it’s the article deadlines, but this week I’m writing about this, and, technically, as I’m typing, it’s pretty late at night, so I’m counting it.
So I looked into the grammar thing, and it’s actually a machlokes. Some say that it’s Presidents’ Day, because it celebrates both Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays were close together, so like siblings whose birthdays are in the same month, they always have to share a cake on some hybrid day that is nobody’s actual birthday. Others say that it’s a day to celebrate the presidents, not a day belonging to the presidents, so it should be Presidents Day. And still others say that it should be President’s Day, since the holiday was created for George Washington, and he’s just one guy.
(I’m actually typing this whole thing out with one hand, because I’m using my other thumb to darshan. That said, my apologies if someone is reading this article to you out loud, because you probably have no idea of anything that’s happened in the last paragraph or two, and you think the other person is having an episode. Just bear with me here.)
Father’s Day is a given. Each person is only celebrating one father (you’re not expected to wish someone else’s father a Happy Father’s Day) so it’s singular. And if you’re going to say that it’s a day to celebrate them but it doesn’t belong to them, it actually does. They get things such as breakfast in bed so they can show their appreciation by saying, “I can’t eat this now. I have to go to Shacharis,” and then coming back an hour later, crawling into bed, and eating your cold toast. (This is the main reason it’s not a Jewish holiday.) Whereas when it comes to Presidents Day, when was the last time you got your president anything? And if you’d make him breakfast in bed, you’d get tackled by security guards and your breakfast will be taken to a discreet location and blown up.
My point, though, is that we, as a country, can’t even agree on how to spell Presidents Day, but we do agree that we want to take off for it.
It really has to do with what state you live in, though:
- It’s called Presidents’ Day in nine states, plus Puerto Rico for some reason.
- It’s called Presidents Day in four states, including New Jersey, although I live in New Jersey and I’ve been writing “Presidents’ Day” until I started doing research for this article.
- It’s called President’s Day in nine states, including Massachusetts.
- In Illinois, Iowa, and New York, it’s called Washington’s Birthday. Which, incidentally, is also what the federal government calls it.
- Maine calls it Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day, which is a mouthful, but not as bad as
- Arizona, which calls it Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day, because there’s not a lot else to do in Arizona.
- Montana calls it Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday, in alphabetical order, while
- Minnesota calls it Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday, in chronological order.
- In Virginia, they call it George Washington Day, and they celebrate it for the entire month of February.
- Utah calls it Washington and Lincoln Day.
- Colorado and Ohio call it Washington–Lincoln Day, which I’m not sure how to pronounce. Washington through Lincoln?
- Alabama calls it George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday, with no apostrophes for some reason, and even though Jefferson was born in April. And not even in Alabama.
- Arkansas calls it George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, because … Arkansas.
And then there’s the question of when it’s celebrated:
- In New Mexico, Presidents’ Day is on the Friday following Thanksgiving, when most people are observing Black Friday. As a professional humor columnist, I don’t think this needs a punch line.
- In Georgia, it’s observed on December 24. Unless that’s a Shabbos, in which case they pull it back to Friday the 23rd. I am not making this up.
- In Indiana, Washington’s Birthday is on the 24th of December unless it’s a Friday or a Shabbos, and then Lincoln’s Birthday is the day after Thanksgiving.
- I cannot stress enough that George Washington was born in February.
Most of the country, though, celebrates Washington’s birthday on the third Monday in February, which always falls sometime between the 15th and the 21st. But before we make fun of anyone, I should point out that George Washington was actually born on February 11 (1732), so Washington’s Birthday can never actually fall out on Washington’s birthday according to anyone. Oh, but wait: it turns out that Britain and all their colonies switched calendars in 1752, so what used to be the 11th became the 22nd! Which, I still have to point out, is after the 21st.
And yes, everyone had to run out and buy new calendars, and also switch their birthdays and anniversaries. They switched from the Julian calendar — proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE — to the Gregorian calendar — proposed by some guy named Greg (I looked him up; he was born in Bologna, which is not pronounced like you think it is) in 1582. And they did this for a very good reason. The Julian calendar measured the length of a year at 365.25 days, while the Gregorian calendar measures it at 365.2425 days! It doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but it does mean that if you don’t switch out for 1,800 years, you end up like 13 days off. (The downsides of procrastination.) Though, somehow, they got 11.
In fact, in 1879, they established the holiday on February 22, which is George’s actual birthday, arguably.
But then in 1971, the holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February, because getting a Monday off is more important than celebrating Washington’s Birthday on Washington’s actual birthday. This was part of the Uniform Holiday Monday Act, which pushed almost all American-based holidays to Mondays, except for Thanksgiving, which is Thursday, and July 4th, which has to be on the fourth unless we want to go through a whole thing. Because you could just push these special days off to Mondays, for convenience. Like if you ever forget your wife’s birthday and she calls you on it, you can just say, “No, I moved it to next Monday, for convenience!” But we haven’t heard Washington complain, so whatever.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.