Presidents Day is rife with inconsistencies. As Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post pointed out, we can’t seem to agree on what to call it — or which heads of state it’s even supposed to be honoring in the first place. But if you’re a history buff, there’s a lot to like about Presidents Day. (And the same goes for anybody who owns a car dealership.)
1. George Washington both was and wasn’t born on February 22, 1732
Nobody left a bigger impact on Presidents Day than the father of the country himself. After all, it was his birthday which begat this entire holiday. But when exactly was George Washington born? To answer that question, we’ll need to discuss the so-called Gregorian Calendar.
Invented in 1582, it’s the calendar of choice for just about everyone today. But until the 1750s, Great Britain and her colonies relied on the age-old Julian Calendar, an ancient time-tracking tool that had long-since fallen out of alignment with Earth’s rotations around the sun.
The British government didn’t switch over to the new calendar until 1752. By then, George Washington had already been born. According to the old Julian Calendar, his date of birth was February 11, 1731. Yet once the Gregorian Calendar was implemented, Washington’s birthday was retroactively moved to February 22, 1732.
2. Andrew Jackson once celebrated Washington’s B-Day with lots of cheese
Since 1779, Americans have used this general-turned-statesman’s birthdate as an excuse to cut loose and have fun. And nobody threw better ragers than Old Hickory. Late in his presidency, Andrew Jackson hosted a party on Washington’s birthday at the White House. The main attraction was a 1,400-pound block of cheese which was (mostly) divvied up among Jackson’s visitors. The uneaten bits were left behind — and proceeded to stink up the joint.
3. During the Gilded Age, George Washington’s birthday became a legal work holiday
At the suggestion of U.S. Senator Wallace Dorsey (an Arkansas Republican), Congress and then-President Rutherford B. Hayes made February 22 a legal work holiday for federal employees in the District of Columbia. The measure was signed into law on January 31, 1879, although it didn’t take effect until the following year. Later on, in 1885, Washington’s Birthday became a nationwide Federal holiday.
4. Long before car dealerships held big sales, it was a great day to buy a bike
Every year, U.S. car sales usually go up by around 25% during Presidents Day weekend. For countless dealerships, this holiday’s an ideal time for slashing prices — and airing bombastic tricorn-laden commercials. Gilded Age bike-smiths beat them to the punch. In the 1890s, bicycle sellers in Boston and New York City started keeping their shops open on February 22, when most other businesses were closed. The gambit paid off: Until the year 1900 or so, George Washington’s birthday remained synonymous with bikes in some corners of the country.
5. It goes by many names
The Federal Holiday’s real name is still “Washington’s Birthday.” But many states, businesses and private citizens prefer to call it “Presidents Day,” “President’s Day,” or “Presidents’ Day” (note the apostrophe change). And down below, we’ll get to even more aliases.
6. Today, we always observe Presidents Day on a Monday — thanks to an Act of Congress
Nomenclature debates aside, Americans now celebrate this patriotic holiday on the third Monday in February. That’s been the case since 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. By creating this new measure, elected officials hoped to give families more three-day weekends. But ironically enough, the decision guaranteed that the holiday never falls on George Washington’s actual birthday anymore.
7. Different places honor different presidents
Some of us use Presidents Day as a time to honor all U.S. Heads of State. Other celebrants single out Washington and Abraham Lincoln (who was born on February 12, 1809) for special recognition. Then there’s Alabama, where the holiday is called “Washington and Jefferson Day.” Meanwhile, Arkansans know it as “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day.” Bates, for the record, was a prominent Civil Rights activist from the Natural State.
8. Four U.S. presidents have had February birthdays
You already know about Washington and Lincoln. But the Gipper cracks this list, too; Ronald Reagan was born in Illinois on February 6, 1911. Rounding out or executive quartet is William Henry Harrison, who came into the world on February 9, 1773. He’s probably best remembered for his death: Harrison kicked the bucket on April 4, 1841, just one month after being sworn in as president.
9. Want an on-theme dessert? Try cherry pie
We’ve all heard the story of how a young George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree and then fessed up to the misdeed. Alas, the tale is not true. Yet in 1953, the Republican and Herald — a newspaper based in Pottsville, Pennsylvania — encouraged readers to honor Presidents Day by baking cherry pies. “Cherry pie, popular at any season, has special appeal when served as a reminder of George Washington’s Birthday,” wrote the paper. Some school cafeterias and Kansas City chefs would seem to agree.