Despite what the mattress advertisers tell you, it isn’t called Presidents’ Day. It is officially known as George Washington’s Birthday, which – by the way – didn’t fall on February 20th. Our first President was born on February 22. Or February 11, depending on which calendar you use.
It all began in 1800 when a federal holiday was declared to celebrate George Washinton’s birthday (he was sworn in as President in 1789, and died in 1799). His birthday was on February 22, 1732, according to the Gregorian calendar. But a lot of people still used the old Julian calendar (popular in England), and they considered his birthday February 11.
Then Abraham Lincoln came along. His birthday was February 12th. Unofficially, many people celebrated his birthday too (although not as a federal holiday).
Eventually (in 1968), Congress decided to rearrange some holidays to allow for federal workers to get more three-day-weekends. So Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays were merged into one holiday to be celebrated on the third Monday of February to approximate the 22nd. There were bills introduced to change the official name of the holiday, but none were passed. Therefore, the day is still officially called George Washington’s birthday.
Because of the commercial benefit of calling it Presidents’ Day (easier to use than George Washington’s Birthday, as in “George Washington’s Birthday Sale!”), the original reason for the holiday – namely, to celebrate the birth of the father of our country – has been largely forgotten.
But it sells a lot of mattresses.