According to the blizzard of furniture, appliance and auto ads in the newspapers and on TV, today is Presidents Day.

But according to Congress, it's not Presidents Day at all. It's George Washington's Birthday.

Yes, the official federal holiday designation by act of Congress in 1971 and signed by President Nixon is that the third Monday in February shall be set aside to celebrate the birth of the "father of our country” and first president, George Washington.


Prior to 1971, the holiday was celebrated on Feb. 22, Washington’s actual birthday. But it was moved to the third Monday in February to create a three-day winter weekend. But sadly, in the shift, the holiday has morphed into "Presidents Day" or "President's Day" on which the recognition or celebration of Washington's contributions to American history have nearly disappeared in the media and in our communities.

Once a staple of local observances across the country, Washington's Birthday celebrations are now held in only a few outposts such as Alexandria, Va. near his Mount Vernon home. Alexandria will hold a parade today. A tall "George Washington" in white wig and colonial dress will march as at the head of procession. A memorial wreath will be placed at Washington's tomb on his Mount Vernon estate and tours of his home are open free of charge today to all visitors.

Abraham Lincoln also was shortchanged when Washington's Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February. The Great Emancipator's birthday, Feb. 12, was a legal holiday in many states, primarily in the North, before the change. School kids loved Washington and Lincoln. They got both of their birthdays off from school.

And in the school days leading up to those birthdays, teachers taught lessons on the contributions of both men. For Lincoln, they outlined his courageous role in ending slavery and read to classes the Gettysburg Address. Many teachers required students to memorize its 272 words – you know, "Four score and seven years ago ... "

To honor George Washington, teachers taught the value of honesty through the mythical chopping-down-the-cherry-tree tale and extolled the bravery, sacrifices and suffering of his men during the bitter winter at Valley Forge, Pa., and how the general knelt in the snow to ask for divine help. That's all out of fashion now.

Many classroom walls displayed Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of Washington or prints of the famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Some also had pictures of Lincoln, such as the seated sculpture that is the centerpiece of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

When Congress created the three-day weekend, many states that observed Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays melded them into one and called it "Presidents Day." The result: The real reason for the holidays in the first place has been mostly forgotten or relegated to afterthoughts. That's too bad. Let’s remember them through their words.

Abraham Lincoln:

• "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

• "As an individual who undertakes to live by borrowing, soon finds his original means devoured by interest, and next to no one left to borrow from — so must it be with a government."

• "[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

George Washington:

• "Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest."

• "Be not obstinate in your own opinion."

• "I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man."

• "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

• "The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves. ... The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance or the most abject submission. That is all we can expect. We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die."

These are words we can learn from. Happy birthday, Mr. Presidents.

Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.