The Myths of Washington’s Birthday

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One of the myths surrounding the date of the Washington Birthday holiday is that President Nixon renamed it President’s Day. Or Presidents’ Day, depending on how you place your apostrophe.

Ms. C. L Arbelbide, a historian and storyteller specializing in federal holiday history and unique events associated with the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall, has written an exhaustive account of the holiday and how it was altered. See her complete articles in www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/winter/gw-birthday-1.html and www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/winter/gw-birthday-2.html.

“Before 1971, Washington’s Birthday was one of nine federal holidays celebrated on specific dates, which—year after year—fell on different days of the week (the exception being Labor Day—the original Monday holiday). Then came the tinkering of the Ninetieth Congress in 1968. Determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays, Congress voted to shift three existing holidays to Mondays and expanded the number further by creating one new Monday holiday.

Washington’s Birthday was uprooted from its fixed February 22 date and transplanted to the third Monday in February, followed by Memorial Day being relocated from the last day in May to the last Monday in May. One newly created holiday—Columbus Day—was positioned on the second Monday in October, as Veterans Day—ousted from its November 11 foxhole—was reassigned to the fourth Monday in October (although rebellion by veterans’ organizations and state governments forced the 1980 return of Veterans Day to its historic Armistice date of November 11). That Washington’s birth date—February 22—would never fall on the third Monday in February was considered of minimum importance.”

Ms. Arbelbide calls attention to what she calls A Phantom Presidential Proclamation:

Ahhhh, the Internet (she writes). A haven for homemade home pages. As web writers began pointing fingers at who was responsible for the federal Washington’s Birthday holiday title being changed to Presidents’ Day, web sites unanimously attributed the change to a presidential proclamation—issued by President Richard Nixon—who was in office when the “Uniform Monday Holiday Law” was enacted in 1971.

Like a platter of hors d’oeuvres, word-for-word segments of the “alleged” proclamation were passed from one web site to another (including educational based and various U.S. embassy sites) as if cut and paste was the new style of web writing. Supposedly—it was surmised—Nixon had issued a presidential proclamation in 1971 changing the name from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.

Had any writer cared to call the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration; the staff at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California; or the law library at the Library of Congress, they would have learned that no such presidential proclamation exists. As an archivist at the Nixon staff commented, this phantom presidential proclamation was ‘the ultimate in presidential urban myths.”

Many thanks to Sarah Uthoff for sending this information!

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2 Responses to The Myths of Washington’s Birthday

  1. blooper0223 says:

    A postscript here: I actually work with the guy responsible for this myth, Michael Storey (the whole tale is detailed in Arbelbide’s piece), and he STILL gets calls about that column. The first clue that it was satire should have been that the column was written by a dead cat, but I guess if Glenn Beck can get a book deal, then a deceased tuxedo cat with a weird sense of humor can write. ,-)

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