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As Long as We Remember...

February 17, 2011

Really! It’s Still Washington’s Birthday

Chris Cavey

Why is Presidents’ Day weekend the best time to buy a mattress? Back in the day, when we were kids February was one of the best months. The shortest winter month was always good for a snow day or two, plus we got two days off (unless on a weekend) to celebrate birthdays for Presidents Washington and Lincoln.


Today, those birthdays are just a single holiday weekend for retail close-out deals…What happened?


How did this condensed holiday weekend come about? Is it a conspiracy that started with car dealers, linen brokers and mattress makers to dump inventory before the end of the fiscal year? Is it an excuse to garner higher retail sales in mid-winter when sales are low? Is it a play to grab tax refunds from early filers?


Who knows? One thing, for sure, is few citizens take pause to think about George and Abe.


In 1885 President Chester A. Arthur signed into law a bill establishing George Washington’s birthday as a federal holiday. This was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen. Few would, or have ever, disputed such an honor for the Father of Our Country. The first and only president elected unanimously.


Also in the rarified air of greatness is Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president. It was ol’ Honest Abe who presided over our nation during our toughest time of internal dispute and upheaval. He, too, has his birthday inscribed on almost every calendar you can purchase within the United States. The problem arose about one hundred years after his death when someone in the Congress realized Abe and George have birthdays only 10 days apart …and something had to be done.


Prior to 1968 the dual honoring of great presidents caused seemingly little problems. February is a short month in the middle of winter, a break or two was always pretty nice. However, bureaucracy raised its ugly head in 1968 with the uniform system of federal holidays.


The citizens of our country apparently needed Uncle Sam to tell us how to efficiently use our holidays, and how many weekends would qualify as “long weekends,” thus Abe was left without a birthday party. Christopher Columbus, who never set foot on U.S. soil, took an adjustment with his birthday, too.


President Richard Nixon signed this bill into law in 1971 and “Washington’s Birthday” officially became the third Monday in February, never again to be mathematically celebrated on his actual date. (Note: The correct name for this holiday is still Washington’s Birthday – not Presidents’ Day. So, don’t be fooled by advertisements.)


You see, the 90th Congress reached agreement on the act of establishing uniform holidays, but the uniform holiday title agreement died in committee. (Sounds like something Congress would do…) Each time the official act of naming the third Monday of February “Presidents’ Day” comes to committee (last time in 1999) it is pronounced dead on arrival, in both chambers. No one wants to vote against The Father of Our Country!


The chairman of the Judiciary Committee for the 90th Congress, U.S. Rep. William M. McCulloch (R., Ohio) said in 1968 that "it was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary that this [naming the day Presidents’ Day] would be unwise… Certainly, not all presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of Our Country."


The pro-Presidents’ Day aficionados know the office of President of the United States is the most honorable and highest office in our country. All true patriots understand about due respect, honor and reverence to the office. However, there are few presidents who warrant an individually named federal holiday. Washington and Lincoln are certainly the top two.


We also know from history some of our chief executives perhaps need not be held up to the level of national celebration. Few citizens would likely want to celebrate the trials, tribulations and faux pas of some of our esteemed leaders. Doubtfully, too, those men, if alive, would want an annual regurgitation of their problems in the media either.


Well…time passed and eventually five states changed the name of the mandated federal holiday date to “Presidents’ Day,” within their jurisdiction, because they continued to maintained the traditional birthdates of Washington and Lincoln as state holidays within their law. (A states’ rights issue, I suppose.)


Being a country of entrepreneurs and capitalists, a marketing idea was born with all the new time off from the due diligence of our daily jobs. We now had time to be tempted to shop and to boost the retail sales during winter in America. States translate that economic boost into sales tax revenue. (Yea!)


The idea made money for everyone, reduced inventory kept merchants cash flow moving during a slow time – it caught fire across the nation. Large retailers have huge sales and spend giant amounts of money advertising. Citizens buy goods and services, go on vacations, order pizza and spend lots of money. It is the bump needed by our economy – and our state coffers. (As President Washington would say: Huzzah!)


George Washington now saves our nation annually, although marketing would make you believe he is just forced to share credit with 43 others. And so…the name remains George Washington’s Birthday, not President’s Day.


Now go out and buy a mattress or some furniture or maybe a new car and let’s celebrate!


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