President’s Day isn’t just about those great discounts you get from retail sales or a killer time to buy a new car. It also doesn’t only mean that you get a day off from work or school (if you're lucky, you do). And here’s the real shocker: it’s not even called President’s Day — at least not officially.
The third Monday in February is theoretically meant to honor all the United States presidents, particularly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but that wasn’t always the case. The holiday has a history dating back to the beginning of the 19th century and has gone through many changes since that point. Here’s a brief overview of the holiday and what it really signifies — plus a guide to who gets the holiday off.
If you celebrate all the U.S. presidents in February, by all means, don’t let us stop you. There have been many great leaders throughout our country’s history who deserve thanks. But that wasn’t actually the original intent of the holiday.
In 1800, the year after George Washington died, people were looking for a way to honor the first U.S. president. For the majority of the 19th century, people celebrated a holiday called Washington’s Birthday on, as you can probably guess, Washington’s birthday, which was February 22 (at least, this is the date according to the Gregorian calendar, which England adopted in 1752, 20 years after Washington’s birth; it was February 11 according to the Julian calendar, which was in use when he was born in 1732).
In 1879, Congress declared Washington’s Birthday an official bank holiday, giving government offices and institutions the day off in the District of Columbia. In 1885, this policy was applied to all federal offices, becoming the fourth federal bank holiday and the first to honor a single person. (The second was Martin Luther King, Jr.; a celebration taking place the third Monday in January, around his birthday, January 15, was made a federal holiday in 1983.)
Essentially, the holiday became what it is today because Americans love their three-day weekends. Congress developed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act during the 1960s, moving some holidays to Mondays to give employees mini-vacations to discourage absenteeism. That meant many holidays were no longer celebrated on days of the actual events they commemorated.
In Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln was born, Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, was already celebrated as a holiday. The state’s Senator Robert McClory suggested combining the two beloved presidents’ birthdays into a single holiday to be called “President’s Day.” While the theory behind the proposal passed via an executive order from President Richard Nixon in 1971, the name change didn’t. In fact, despite the fact that most people and businesses call the holiday President’s Day, the federal holiday is still officially called Washington’s Birthday, even though it’s no longer celebrated on February 22. And while there are other presidents whose birthdays fall in February, including William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan, the holiday largely still focuses on Washington and Lincoln.
Federal banks, including the Federal Reserve, are closed on President’s Day. Many private banks and financial institutions, along with plenty of other businesses, are closed as well. Customers should still be able to access their accounts online and use ATMs, although they may not be able to expect updates to be recorded or to receive customer service (from humans, at least) until the following day because many employees have the holiday off.
The following states have made the day a state holiday, using the name President’s Day, Washington’s Birthday or some variation of these names, such as Washington and Lincoln Day (Utah):
Puerto Rico also celebrates the holiday.
Some of all these states celebrate the holiday on the third Monday of February, while others celebrate it at different times or in conjunction with holidays at different times. Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday, so all states honor the third Monday in February, regardless of whether they have additional observances (not everyone necessarily has the day off, however).
As noted, there is no federal holiday called President’s Day, but Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday, observed on the third Monday of February each year. This year, 2020, it falls on Monday, February 17. Here are the dates through 2025:
2021: Monday, February 15
2022: Monday, February 21
2023: Monday, February 20
2024: Monday, February 19
2025: Monday, February 17
Given that Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday, federal employees get the day off, of course. Many other government and state employees do, too. The courts are closed, as are Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange. United States Postal Service (USPS) employees have the day off, so don’t expect the mail to be delivered (although Fedex and UPS will still deliver). Most public schools are off as well, and many private schools are, too.
Private employers vary as to whether they're open or closed. Some will still be in operation, while others give employees the day off. If you’re not sure if you’re expected to show up to work, it’s best to check with your manager or HR or consult your employee handbook.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.