Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day? Errr, which one?

Today is Presidents Day (also spelled President's Day or Presidents' Day) here in the US. But just what is it? Lots of confusion out there. Officially, at least federally, the day is meant to commemorate George Washington's birthday, whose actual birthday is February 22. In the long ago past of my youth there was no Presidents Day. Washington's birthday was actually celebrated on the 22nd. It was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen. Abraham Lincoln's birthday is also in February, on the 12th. It, too, was celebrated.

There was a push, beginning in the 50s, to have a federal Presidents Day that would honor all of our presidents. It didn't work on a federal level but there were some states who adopted the idea, either for all presidents or for those with roots in a particular state.

In 1968 the government established a uniform federal holiday system whereby all federal holidays would fall on a Monday, allowing Americans to have a long weekend to celebrate and eliminating the chaos that sometimes occurred when days off fell in the middle of the week. At that time some wanted to name the official day celebrated today as Presidents Day, indicating both the birthday of Washington and that of Lincoln. It failed to pass in Congress, so officially, today celebrates only Washington's birthday.

Unfortunately, for most people, today isn't a celebration of Washington's birthday, of Lincoln's birthday or the birthday of any other president. Where once this day was really a day off for all American citizens, with government offices, schools and businesses closed, it has become synonymous with "Big Shopping Day." If there is any excitement about the day at all it is because sales abound; shopping uber alles.

Back when I was in elementary school and high school, the 12th and 22nd really were celebrated for their intended purposes. Every school taught all about Washington and Lincoln and pageants and presentations were the rule of the day. We weren't off from school but had a grand old time anyway. My elementary school used to bake birthday cakes for those two days and everyone joined in to sing happy birthday and remember what these two men did for this country. I attended a high school named Abraham Lincoln High. The school presented a pageant every year with Lincoln's accomplishments highlighted. There were knowledge bowls based on Lincoln's life, there were songs and there was a real sense of what the day was about.

But since today is regarded, at least federally, as still in celebration of Washington alone, perhaps we all should take a moment out of our busy shopping schedule and ruminate about what this Founding President did for the country, who he was, what he thought.

Since 1862 it has been a custom in the US Senate to read Washington's Farewell Address on this day. If you remember the President no other way, then you might spend a moment reading his words.


Lion of Zion said...

"Unfortunately, for most people, today isn't a celebration of Washington's birthday, of Lincoln's birthday or the birthday of any other president . . . it has become synonymous with "Big Shopping Day."

this is basically describes all our civil holidays. who stops to be on thanksgiving day, to memorialize dead soldiers on memorial day, etc.

Rae said...

Other than the Senate, does anybody really celebrate this day as Washington's birthday? There was no story about Washington in the paper, not a peep on the news either. Schools are off but I'd bet the kids didn't learn much about him before the vacation.

At least for Veterans Day and Memorial Day there are lots of groups holding programs and lots of publicity in the papers, television, radio and online. How come the federal government doesn't do anything but read the speech, and even there only in the Senate not in the House too? Kind of a strange holiday when even the group that established it doesn't do much of anything for it.

Anonymous said...

Why care about this at all? Our jewish calendar is full of holidays that are ours. Do you get excited when it's the yahrtzeit of one of our gedolei yisroel? We should be doing more to remember our historically great people. Most of our kids are ignorant about our own history. Why bother with what's just another sale day?

Lion of Zion said...


"Why care about this at all?"

because it is possible to argue that never in history have jews been as comfortable (and i don't just mean materially) as we are in america today

"We should be doing more to remember our historically great people. Most of our kids are ignorant about our own history."

agreed. but learning and appreciating jewish and american history don't have to be mutually exclusive endeavors

"Why bother with what's just another sale day?"

yeah, as opposed to our upcoming holidays, which are completely devoid of any consumerism.
at least the goyyim treat each other to sales to celebrate the festive days. come purim and pesach and yidden convince each other that social norms are really religious norms, engage in price gouging and otherwise rip each other off.