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The topic of tonight's diary was originally mystery novels that celebrated the American Presidency in honor of today's holiday. However, as I started my internet search, two things became very clear to me:

  • Janet Rudolph at Mystery Fanfare provides the best list on the net for holiday themed mysteries. It makes little sense for me to try to reinvent the wheel when it had been happily spinning for so many years at Mystery Fanfare. If you want a list of Presidents' Day books, I suggest you look there.
  • The greater mystery for me was how, exactly, did Washington's Birthday, February 22nd, become Presidents' Day, on the third Monday of February?

As a child of Chicago, I thought that everyone watched Harry Volkmann report on the weather for Channel 5 and that everyone could watch Johnny Carson at 10:30 PM. As I grew older I learned that no, people in Los Angeles did not learn as much about meteorology as did viewers of WMAQ. Of course, the weather in Los Angeles was always such that they never really needed to know much about tornadoes, wind chill factors or relative humidity. And people on both the east and west coasts had to stay up an extra hour to watch the Tonight Show. Bummer.

It also never occurred to me that the rest of the nation did not celebrate Abraham Lincoln's Birthday with a holiday. It was years later, when I worked for a national corporation, that I learned that the company had a float holiday that could be celebrated as Lincoln's Birthday, February 12, or if preferred by the local branch manager, Columbus Day, October 12. We all celebrated Washington's Birthday on the 22nd of February. And this only became clear to me when the Uniform Monday Holiday bill of 1968 (Public Law 90-363) was passed and then implemented in 1971. We now had a new holiday in October, and Lincoln's Birthday disappeared. We got the third Monday in the month of February instead. And it was called Washington's Birthday, even though it never could actually fall on February 22.

So how did Washington's Birthday become Presidents' Day? Why does the holiday never fall on the birthday of our first President? The more I investigated, the more fascinated I became.

1890s Poster

Portrait of George Washington.
George Washington
by Gilbert Stuart
After President Washington's death in 1799, February 22 was commemorated unofficially throughout the 1800s. He was considered by many to be the most influential man in American history.

On January 31, 1879, Rutherford B Hayes signed into law the bill that made February 22 the federal holiday celebrating the birth of George Washington. (Although Washington was born on February 11, 1731, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Britain in 1752 changed his birthday to February 22, 1732. Which must have been rather confusing to those born under the old calendar.)

The holiday only applied to federal workers in the District of Columbia and to the District itself, and did not require that it be a paid holiday. It was 1879, after all. In 1885, Congress acted to include all federal workers and paid them for the day off. It still remains as the first federal holiday to be named after an individual. Martin Luther King Jr. is the second individual so honored.

All federal holidays apply "only to the federal government and the District of Columbia; Congress has never declared a national holiday binding in all states and each state decides its own legal holidays." That caveat from the National Archives, clarified for me why those of us in Chicago and Illinois tended to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday in addition to Washington's. And why we have such national diversity in holiday observances.

Back to Washington's Birthday and its metamorphosis into Presidents' Day.

The arguments advanced for the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill of 1968 included the benefits to American families who would have three days to spend with relatives who were distant, that they could enjoy leisure time for hobbies or educational activities and that Monday holidays would be beneficial to corporations because it would eliminate the necessity to stop production mid-week for holiday celebrations. There were some who felt that the Monday holiday was designed specifically to benefit the corporations, and the endorsers of the bill did include Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Travel Organizations, and the National Retail Federation.

The debate in the House Judiciary Committee gives us some insight into how very much the Republican Party has changed over the years. Robert McClory was the Republican Representative from Illinois who was charged with getting the bill through the committee. He emphasized the benefit to families of the three day holiday weekends.

Just which "families" would reap the federal holiday benefits concerned Representative Harold Gross (R-Iowa). "I have an idea if we make Monday holidays, to fulfill the promise to merchants that they are going to do a better business, that employees of the stores of this country will have no holidays. They will work at selling merchandise. That is about what will happen."

McClory countered, "Let me say generally that the labor unions are in support of this legislation."

Gross replied, "I am not impressed by that."

McClory responded, "We have labor and management joined together in support of this legislation, which is a unique situation. Furthermore, I am not disappointed that someone will obtain an economic advantage from this legislation, because our whole society is built upon a strong economy. This bill will help promote that economy. That is reason to support this bill not a reason to reject it."

"By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday"
Prologue, Winter 2004, Vol. 36, No. 4

There was actually a Republican, from Iowa no less, arguing with another Republican over the right of workers to enjoy holidays. Who knew?

According to C. L. Arbelbide, author of "By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday," which provided many details for this diary, Rep Gross correctly identified the purpose of the bill, which was to increase the sales and profits of American businesses at the expense of the American worker.

It is no real surprise to see corporations now move to strip Thanksgiving holiday from retail workers in the name of profit. The surprise was that once a Republican tried to fight for American workers.

In addition to this objection, it was argued that future generations of children would fail to know what the date, February 22nd, signified. That they would never learn to appreciate America's first President and only know that they had a three day weekend sometime in February.

According to an author quoted in the Los Angeles Times,

In the case of Washington and Lincoln, Presidents Day reflects “a lack of interest in the men themselves and the lessons they can teach us,” Matthew Dennis, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, said in an interview.

Dennis explored the origins and meanings of American holidays in the book “Red, White and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar.” Dennis writes that the public's passion for Washington and Lincoln has diminished for various reasons: the passage of time, their overexposure, and the difficulty of relating them to problems of modern life, such as environmental pollution and the global economy. “Presidents’ Day did not precipitate such decline; it expresses it,” he writes.

-LA Times
Feb 20, 2012

But back to the mystery of how the federal holiday, Washington's Birthday, become Presidents' Day.

While the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill was being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, Rep McClory (R-IL) tried to get the holiday named Presidents' Day to honor both Washington and Lincoln whose birthdays were, after all, only ten days apart. His efforts failed; many members felt that the name would honor all Presidents, and not all were worthy of such commemoration.

In spite of that, many assumed that the day was meant to honor both Presidents. After all, the actual Monday holiday would never fall on the 22nd, but would always fall after Lincoln's birthday and before Washington's. The third Monday was specifically called for by the Illinois Republican Rep McClory, who falsely claimed that Washington's birthday would often be celebrated on the actual date of February 22, because that would be the third Monday in February.

Which shows that even then, if a Republican did not like a given set of facts, he would just make up his own. The third Monday will always fall between the 15th and the 21st and will never fall on Washington's Birthday. In order for McClory's remarks to be true, the holiday would have to be the fourth Monday of the month.

Thanks to the internet, the rumor that President Nixon had, by proclamation, declared the holiday to be Presidents' Day spread far and wide and false. He never did any such thing.

Retail merchants immediately began to advertise sales for the new three day weekend, and the movement to combine the two February birthdays into one blowout sale really took off in the 1980s. That is when the term Presidents' Day (or Presidents Day, equally correct) became more popular in advertising. It has continued to rise in popularity ever since. Today, most ads use the term Presidents' Day with a lot of red white and blue combined with pictures of Lincoln and Washington, or Mount Rushmore.

Natuzzi furniture Presidents Day Sales ad featuring portraits of Lincoln and Washington.
The Federal Holiday Calendar, as published by the OPM, continues to identify the holiday as Washington's Birthday with this footnote:
*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.
There have been attempts to officially change the holiday to one that directly honors Presidents Washington and Lincoln, the most recent being the Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act of 2001. It never got out of committee.

Officially, it is not Presidents' Day or Presidents Day. It is Washington's Birthday, even though it is never celebrated on his birthday. By an Act of Congress.

Don't you just love politics?

(BTW, Lincoln's Birthday is still celebrated on February 12th as a state holiday in Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. Indiana and West Virginia celebrate Lincoln's Birthday/Lincoln Day as a state holiday on Nov 28 this year, which is the same day that New Mexico celebrates as President's Day. Celebrating it on the day after Thanksgiving means one less paid holiday to worry about.)


Special Announcement
Mystery Readers Book Club


I love reading and writing about mystery novels. And I hope to continue to do so for a long time to come.

But, wouldn't it be fun to read a mystery as part of a group? We could jointly determine which books to read. Then each week we could read a few chapters and talk to each other about those chapters. We could share with each other impressions and questions and clues. We could talk about the characters. Behind their backs.

I envision this as being part of the regular Monday Murder Mystery series, set aside by a box just like this is. That way people who don't wish to participate in the group read can just pass it by. Also, any comments in the diary that discuss the shared book can be identified as Book Club in the topic line to signify that there may be spoilers.

So, what do you think? Would you be interested in participating in a mystery group read? If so, what sub-genre would you like to see us read? There is no reason why we can't start with a book from one sub-genre and then switch to another for a second book. In order to be as inclusive as possible, we may want to consider books that are available in paperback editions.

Please let me know in the comments if you would like to be part of this ongoing group, and what your thoughts are as to sub-genre and/or books to be read. Consider it as an opportunity to pull one of those books off of your TBR pile and to finally get it read. With friends.


Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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