If you ask someone down here in the New Orleans area what holiday we celebrate today, you are likely to be told, “Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras.” Many New Orleanians might be shocked and surprised to hear that the Post Office doesn’t close because it is the day before Mardi Gras. The national holiday is actually Washington’s Birthday, more commonly known as President’s Day. Proclaimed in Washington DC in 1880 and five years later extended to the rest of the country, Washington’s Birthday, on February 22, became the first federal holiday to memorialize an American citizen. Unofficially, many Americans, especially in the school system, also celebrated Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. In some places during the first half of the twentieth century, people recognized a long Patriot’s Week, which included Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on February 17. Perhaps it was inevitable that the memorials of these Mount Rushmore figures would all be somehow collapsed into a single holiday. In 1968, Congress detached the celebration of Washington’s Birthday from his actual date of birth by the Monday Holiday Act, which moved the observance of the first president’s birthday to the third Monday in February, which created a three-day weekend.
I’d like to celebrate Washington, if only we did celebrate him. I’d also advocate observing Jefferson Day by staging public readings of the Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, and the Jefferson-Adams letters. But since the mistakenly named Presidents Day serves mainly to sell mattresses and close down government offices, I suggest the memorial has been drained of all significance. The big tourist event of Mardi Gras isn’t the old local festival, either.