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Presidents' Day: Long-Standing Misnomer

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On Monday Americans celebrate great deals on new cars, sales at the malls, and a day off work. They call it "Presidents' Day."

Others, who remember the hallowed words of President James Buchanan, "When the birthday of Washington shall be forgotten, liberty will have perished from the earth," stick to calling it "Washington's Birthday."

So what's the difference?

Officially, the federal government recognizes the holiday as Washington's Birthday. But along with most of the public, nearly every major news publication, a handful of government offices, and even the president erroneously refer to it as Presidents' Day.

Jason Bezis of Rockville, Md., a historian in his spare time, is on a mission to change this. So far he's had success. This year he persuaded the United States Postal Service, the World Almanac, the New York Stock Exchange, and The Christian Science Monitor to call the day by its official title.

"My ultimate goal is to restore significance to the day, as it was intended to honor George Washington, the father of our country," Mr. Bezis says. "This can start by calling it by its intended name."

Washington's Birthday was made official in 1885 when President Chester Arthur signed a bill establishing it as a federal holiday. Throughout the 1800s, Americans celebrated the day "with as much fervor as the Fourth of July," Bezis says.

A common perception, even among historians, is that Congress created "Presidents' Day" in 1968 to combine Lincoln's Birthday (Feb. 12) and Washington's Birthday (Feb. 22) into a single federal holiday. "This is false," Bezis says. "The 1968 Monday Holidays Act only moved the federal commemoration of Washington's Birthday" from Feb. 22 to the third Monday of the month.

Adding to the confusion, 12 states officially use the "Presidents' Day" designation.

Bezis believes that much of the confusion stems from the original draft of the holidays act, which did specify that Washington's Birthday be changed to a generic "Presidents' Day" to honor all presidents. But, he says, the first version did not pass because Congress felt that a holiday celebrating all presidents would diminish Washington's place in history.

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