Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Month of Love and Presidents

For some time now, I have been curious about the exact designation of the federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February. It poses a usage conundrum: is it Presidents Day, or Presidents’ Day or President’s Day? If it is Presidents or Presidents’, then the holiday would honor all Presidents, probably on the theory that the office itself deserves honor and respect.  Not all Presidents were shining stars.  You can provide your own examples. Or it would honor Washington and Lincoln whose birthdays were in February and who used to each have a holiday to himself. If the designation is President’s Day, then it would be for one President.  Do we get to choose in that case? Is someone going to pick Martin van Buren?

So, in the public interest and to satisfy my own unnatural curiosity, I went to the horse’s mouth, or the OPM web site and found the answer is…none of the above.  The holiday is officially called Washington’s Birthday.  There’s no mention of other presidents at all or even Lincoln whose 200th birthday celebration was a few years ago.  There is a footnote to Washington’s Birthday,

This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.

Apparently among advertisers and in the popular imagination the holiday became Presidents Day (supply your own punctuation: I can’t help you there), probably because of the fond memories many people have of a short month that used to have three distinct holidays.

When I was a lad in school, we celebrated three holidays in February, provided they fell on weekdays. I think the Monday holiday was established to insure that we got at least two days off that month. Every year for Washington’s Birthday we studied his life and did skits, mostly involving cardboard axes and cherry trees. I wish they had told us what we know now about Washington. He had quite a relationship with Sally Fairfax who ran Belvoir Plantation in her husband’s absence and taught the young and untutored Washington about social skills and intellectual matters. 

Martha Custis, a young widow, was apparently really attractive.  She was running eight plantations when she met Washington and there was quite a spark between them. And probably any grandparent could identify with Washington when his step-grandson failed to graduate from three colleges and essentially became what we would call today a slacker.  Nonetheless he built Arlington House as a tribute to his grandfather. Washington  was an amazing figure, one without whom we would probably be a member of the British Commonwealth, like Canada but without the mania for hockey.

Lincoln, too, was the subject of study and drama on his birthday.  Every seventh grader (part of elementary school when dinosaurs roamed the earth) had to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  The most convincing orator dressed in costume and recited the speech before an assembly of the whole school.  I still remember large parts of the address. Lincoln was a phenomenal figure.

I wonder if the skits and shows that we did on these famous men were remnants of a custom before the days of mass media.  Kits and scripts were available that allowed local communities to recreate national events.  In the case of Washington’s funeral, there were only limited descriptions in newspapers and many people could not read anyhow. For a small price, communities purchased staging directions and scripts that allowed them to restage the funeral locally, with local people playing the parts of famous figures. I believe this custom continued through Lincoln’s death but faded from practice with the advent of mass distribution periodicals and photography.

The other holiday was of course Valentine’s Day which we celebrated enthusiastically with handmade Valentines and Valentine mailboxes in classrooms.  My daughter, who teaches fourth grade, tells me the custom continues.  A Valentine’s party was the occasion for one of the best comments by one of her students.  A girl looked around during the proceedings a few years ago and said, “There’s way too much love in this room.”

I do have to wonder, is it Valentine’s Day or Valentines’ Day or Valentines Day? (Somebody stop me!)  The first would imply only one Valentine (a great idea if you are married) or a remembrance of the bishop Valentine.  If it’s plural, that would account for the thousands of elementary classrooms across the nation where everyone gets a Valentine.  Our teachers inspected every one to make sure we didn’t write something like “You’re lucky you got this, you loser.” Such cruelty is possible among children, but by and large the holiday was a grand occasion for good wishes and a lot of candy.

So, whatever you call these holidays and however you celebrate them, I hope you enjoy them all!


  1. It poses a usage conundrum: is it Presidents Day, or Presidents’ Day or President’s Day?--

    I have the same problem with Mothers Day, Fathers Day, the Men's room, the Ladies' room...

    Interesting history. I think kids still do skits, but they don't wear as many black paper hats and beards. The costumes have gotten a little more sophisticated...maybe.

  2. Washington's birthday was February 22 and Lincoln's birthday was February 12. Valentine's Day was still February 14, but if it was a school day we didn't get out and we usually didn't want out since at least half of the day was devoted to exchanging cards. We were instructed on how to make a shoe box turn into a card mailbox so no one would know how many (or how few) cards we had. I still remember my Mother stopping by Peebles to purchase clothes and get a free cherry pie for her coming in on a holiday.

    As for the spelling, you can take the teacher out of the school (retirement), but you can't take the school out of the teacher. Or something like that. I enjoy your blog and I am looking forward to your book.