Many people mistakenly believe the holiday is designated for presidents in general, according to an informal poll this week by FoxNews.com.
Some think every one of our chief executives is meant to be honored on that day, based on the survey, which also produced a wide range of responses regarding specific presidents they assume are the reason for the celebration.
They ranged from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama, neither of whom is correct. I even saw one newspaper survey Monday whereby readers could choose their favorite president, which also reinforces the inaccurate notion that all the men who served are part of the special day.
For the record, Presidents Day honors George Washington, the nation’s first president and the so-called father of the country, and Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, whom many also consider one of the best to occupy the White House.
But the wide-ranging confusion over exactly who the day celebrates suggests that it needs to be more well-defined.
Back in elementary school, I remember no such conflict. There was recognition of Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, when we students learned about his contributions and perhaps drew pictures of log cabins as part of that. Then came Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22, when the story of his chopping down of the cherry tree was always repeated.
Somewhere along the way, things got strange, starting in 1971 when Congress inexplicably approved a bill to rename Washington’s birthday Presidents Day, to honor both George and Abe. This decree specified that the official federal holiday would occur on the third Monday of each February.
Never mind the fact that this isn’t the actual birthday of either man, as was the case this year when Presidents Day fell on Feb. 21.
In my view, this apparent attempt to streamline things only created a disservice to two leaders who each deserve honors in their own right. And by calling the holiday Presidents Day instead of Washington and Lincoln Day, their distinctions are further obscured by a one-size-fits-all mess of generic wishy-washiness that really means nothing to average Joes, judging by the FoxNews.com survey.
This approach works with observances such as Veterans Day, which honors millions of folks who have served in the military, but not so much with just 43 presidents who each were accompanied by a unique set of circumstances — some good, some bad.
I mean, saying that Jefferson or someone else of his ilk should be lauded fits well with those who might favor a generic approach to Presidents Day. Yet do we really want to honor people such as Richard Nixon, who brought disgrace to the office? That’s the kind of idiocy you get into with a holiday that seemingly recognizes presidents in general, no matter how politically correct this might be.
Or should Presidents Day honor just those who were born during what also happens to be the shortest month of the year? Here again, problems are presented, since only four chief executives fit that bill, Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison in addition to Washington and Lincoln.
Reagan has his share of critics as well as admirers and Harrison’s term in office lasated just 30 days after he died from pneumonia, contracted shortly after he gave a lengthy inauguration speech in bitter-cold conditions in early March 1841. Therefore, Harrison had little opportunity to make his mark in the White House, either positive or negative.
Another strange thing about this confusing Presidents Day observance surrounds the fact that various states handle it different ways, regardless of the federal designation. Alabama, for example, celebrates the holiday as Washington and Jefferson Day (although Jefferson’s birthday is in April).
In Virginia, where both Washington and Jefferson were born, the February holiday is officially called George Washington Day, with no mention of Lincoln.
Other states, including Illinois and Missouri, recognize Washington’s birthday as a federal holiday, but treat Lincoln’s birthday as only a state holiday celebrated on Feb. 12, its actual date. I wouldn’t blame fans of Lincoln from feeling a tad shortchanged.
And in North Carolina, Presidents Day is not a state holiday at all.
All this makes me want to chop down a big cherry tree of my own, which hopefully would fall on those responsible for this ridiculously named day. It represents another case of something that wasn’t broke being “fixed.”
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 719-1924.