The nation remembers our greatest leaders
Presidents' Day honors two of the nation's greatest Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. (Photo: Library of Congress)
There is no school on Monday for students all across the country. Many companies are closed, too. Almost everyone gets some time off as the nation celebrates Presidents’ Day. The holiday honors two of our greatest Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Every year, the third Monday of February is set aside by the federal government to honor these men and their contributions to the nation. The celebration officially started in 1880, when Washington’s Birthday (February 22) became an official holiday in Washington, D.C. It became a national holiday in 1885.
In 1971, Congress officially moved the holiday to the Monday closest to Washington's actual birthday. In the 1980s, the holiday became a celebration of the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln (born February 12).
Why Washington and Lincoln?
Why do Washington and Lincoln get all the attention? Washington, the nation’s first President, led the Continental Army to defeat the British. He directed the poorly equipped troops through the dead of winter and held the operation together by being a strong leader. He later presided over the Constitutional Convention, where the U.S. Constitution—the set of our nation’s most precious laws—came to life. Many refer to him as the “Father of Our Nation.”
Abraham Lincoln is also considered one of the nation’s greatest Presidents. Lincoln helped keep the country that Washington built in together. He led the country in the 1860s, and when the U.S. Civil War broke out, he insisted on keeping the South and the North in the Union. During the bloody war, Lincoln freed the slaves in the South with the Emancipation Proclamation.
While Presidents’ Day is an official national holiday, each state is allowed to decide how to celebrate it and even what to call it. While every state has at least some mention of George Washington, some leave Abraham Lincoln out of the celebration. In Alabama, for example, the state celebrates Washington and Jefferson Day, named for Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third President. (Jefferson was born in April.)
Massachusetts celebrates Washington Day in February, and has a separate holiday called Presidents’ Day to honor the Presidents who came from New England. Washington’s home state, Virginia, calls it George Washington Day. In his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, visitors can celebrate with a birthday party.
Presidents’ Day traditions reach the highest points of our nation’s government. Each year, a member of the U.S. Senate reads Washington’s Farewell Address on his birthday. Washington gave the speech at the end of his second term as President. Among other things, it calls on Americans to avoid the dangers of factionalism, or breaking into strong political parties.
Ezra Billinkoff is a contributing writer for Scholastic News Online.