Monday, February 15th is Presidents’ Day, an American holiday celebrated on the 3rd Monday of February. This holiday was originally established in 1885 to recognize President George Washington and is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. Washington’s birthday is celebrated on February 22, his actual day of birth but the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers – which I quite enjoy today! While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents’ Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present.
Like Independence Day, Presidents’ Day is traditionally viewed as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance. In its original incarnation as Washington’s Birthday, the holiday gained special meaning during the difficulties of the Great Depression, when portraits of George Washington often graced the front pages of newspapers and magazines every February 22. In 1932 the date was used to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military decoration originally created by George Washington to honor soldiers killed or wounded while serving in the armed forces. In 1938 an estimated 5,000 people attended mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in honor of Washington.
In its modern form, Presidents’ Day is used by many patriotic and historical groups as a date for staging celebrations and reenactments. A number of states also require that their public schools spend the days leading up to Presidents’ Day teaching students about the accomplishments of all the presidents, often with a strong emphasis on the lives of Washington and Lincoln.
I distinctly remember in 5th grade having to do a project for Presidents’ day on a President or his wife and their accomplishments while in office. I chose Dolley Madison and to this say still am fascinated with her and all she did for our country. While she isn’t a President, she did shape the way Presidents and their families are seen in our country. She helped bring the government to the 21st Century without even realizing it.
She held the first Inaugural Ball at Capital Hill after James Madison was elected president and continued to host dinners for stately guest. She famously sponsored egg-rolling contests for children on or near the lawn at the Capitol Building, served ice cream at the White House and redecorated the home to be more inviting to guests. Dolley Madison was the first “First Lady” to formally associate herself with a specific public project; as a supporter and board member she helped open a D.C. home for young orphaned girls. She also befriended nuns from a local Catholic school and began a lifelong association with the organization. Her legacy was made lasting by her conscious act of symbolic patriotism in the hours before the burning of Washington by invading British troops during the War of 1812. She blatantly refused to leave the White House before being assured that the large portrait of George Washington was removed from the walls and taken safely away from potential destruction. After presidential life, she returned home and was still sought after as a confidant and mentor to future presidential wives. Legend has it that at her funeral President Taylor eulogized her as the “First Lady” – perhaps this was the first known use of the title.
This Presidents’ day, don’t just remember the Presidents’ – remember their wives and families because without them by their side, shaping their minds and hearts, listening at dinner or hosting guests – where would our country be today?