Presidents Day falls on February 16th this year. To many people, this day is little more than a day off from work or school. However, Presidents Day has a unique history, and it allows us a chance to recognize a specific group of individuals.

Presidents Day began as a celebration of George Washington’s birthday.

Originally, the holiday took place on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22nd. Indeed, it’s still legally called “Washington’s Birthday.” In 1971, President Nixon passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which shifted several federal holidays to predetermined Mondays. This was considered a good way to provide laborers with more three-day weekends, reduce employee absenteeism, and increase retail sales.

The same Act that shifted Washington’s birthday to Mondays also suggested combining it with a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Lincoln’s birthday was February 12th and had already been celebrated locally in some places, like his home state of Illinois. This would have allowed the rest of the nation the chance to recognize two of the United States’ most famous and influential presidents. However, the suggestion that the holiday now be called “Presidents Day,” rather than “Washington’s Birthday,” was met with so much criticism that the name stayed the same.

Despite this, marketers jumped at the name “Presidents Day.” Thanks to a flood of Presidents Day sales and events, the name Presidents Day has stuck. An article in the Washington Post by Valerie Strauss sums up the exact state of this holiday:

“So, today, though the federal holiday is marked on the third Monday in February, there is no agreed-upon name, no universal agreement on who is being celebrated, and the use of the apostrophe in the name is varied: Sometimes it isn’t used at all (as in Presidents Day), sometimes it is placed between the last two letters (President’s Day) and sometimes it is after the last letter (Presidents’ Day).”

The Senate observes Presidents Day by reading George Washington’s Farewell Address. This practice began in 1862, and it became an annual tradition in 1888. Many places encourage schools to teach students about past presidents during the days leading up to Presidents Day. Additionally, stores with Presidents Day sales are easy to come by. The Denver Botanic Gardens on York Street is also observing Presidents Day by having a free admission day.

Whatever it’s officially called, and whomever it was originally meant to honor, Presidents Day is an excellent chance to honor those who have served our country.

Several states have added others to the list of people recognized on Presidents Day, sometimes even widening the holiday to include all past presidents. Additionally, the Purple Heart, a military decoration for soldiers wounded or killed in the line of duty, was reinstated on Washington’s Birthday in 1932. This suggests that the ambiguous nature of the holiday lends itself well to a celebration of anyone who has served his or her country, be they president or soldier.

Honoring veterans of the armed forces can be as simple as expressing gratitude for his or her service. Many locations also offer discounts to military veterans, some on certain holidays and some on a daily basis. In addition, there are many avenues that allow public recognition of military veterans. Colorado has several memorials dedicated to veterans.

The internet also provides an excellent way to honor the United States’ military veterans. For example, the website A Place for Mom is full of information and news about aging well, retirement planning, and caregiving. Also on this site is the Wall of Honor, a tribute to those who have served our country. According to the description for the Wall of Honor:

“This tribute offers family and friends the opportunity to celebrate a loved one that has served in the U.S. military by sharing a treasured photo along with military and life highlights, and personal messages.”

This page is full of photos of veterans. Clicking on a photo displays the military branch, rank, and years of service of that particular veteran, in addition to the war or conflict that he or she served during and a short biographical message.

Abundant resources are available to help veterans and their loved ones.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) have collaborated to create eBenefits. On this site, veterans, active duty soldiers, and their families can navigate the benefits, compensation, and other services available through the government. The eBenefits site also has a database of national resources. The Community College of Aurora also has a list of different resources available to veterans, active duty soldiers, and their families.

Additionally, the Colorado Resource Portal for Veterans maintains a large database of Colorado resources for veterans. This database is large enough that it should be able to help no matter the need, from homelessness to unemployment to family-based day activities.

For veterans who are going through the difficult process of adjustment to civilian life, VetNet can be a great source of support. This network provides information and advice for employment and entrepreneurship. In addition to this, VetNet has an active social network on Google+, complete with occasional group meetings called Hangouts that allow veterans to discuss topics together.

Presidents Day may have begun as a celebration of George Washington. However, Washington himself went out of his way during his lifetime to honor veterans with actions like the institution of the Purple Heart award. So, it’s not hard to imagine that George Washington himself would approve of using his birthday as a day to recognize our nation’s heroes.

How will you observe Presidents Day?

Image by Diana Robinson via Flickr

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