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“To Bigotry No Sanction, to Persecution No Assistance.”

Monday, 18 February 2008

These words, written by President George Washington to Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (now known as Touro Synagogue) in August 1790, were seen as a promise by the newly-elected President of the United States. A promise that we would finally live as a free people in this new land.

george washington letter

It was on this day in 1732 — wait a minute! It was not on this day. It was on February 22nd that our first President was actually born. So what gives??

It all started innocently enough. Due to the high rate of employee absenteeism, in 1870 four bank holidays were approved for governmental workers: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. A few years later, Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey (R-Arkansas) proposed the addition of “citizen” Washington’s birth date, February 22, as the fifth federal holiday. Long an unofficial celebration, this idea was signed into law on January 31, 1879, by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Within just a few years, this holiday was extended to federal workers in the thirty-eight states.

So far so good.

Prior to the year of my birth (1971 for those of you keeping track), Washington’s Birthday was one of nine federal holidays celebrated on specific dates. Like the Jewish holidays seem to do (but don’t really!), these fell on different days of the week each year with one exception. Labor Day. Labor Day has always been on a Monday. Then along came the Ninetieth Congress. These visionaries felt that a uniform system of federal Monday holidays would bring peace and harmony to the families of our great nation. See for yourself:

“Three-day holidays offer greater opportunities for families—especially those whose members may be widely separated—to get together. . . .”
“The three-day span of leisure time . . . would allow our citizens greater participation in their hobbies as well as in educational and cultural activities.”
“Monday holidays would improve commercial and industrial production by minimizing midweek holiday interruptions of production schedules and reducing employee absenteeism before and after midweek holidays.”

(Congressional Record, 05/06/68)

Interestingly, the revamped holiday system was enthusiatically endorsed by such business-related organizations as the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Travel Organizations, and the National Retail Federation.


In the end, Congress voted to shift three existing holidays (Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day) to Mondays and expanded the number further by creating one new Monday holiday — Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. An interesting side-note: this bill moved Veterans’ Day to the fourth Monday in October but in 1980 was returned to its historical Armistice date of November 11, thanks to veterans’ organizations. Some of you may recall that switch-a-roo.

Back to our story…

There had been an early attempt to rename the day “Presidents’ Day,” but this proposal was quickly shot down. One representative even went so far as to convince the other lawmakeers that should Washington’s birthday be celebrated on the third Monday it would be alright because [February 22] in many cases will be the third Monday in February. It will also be celebrated on February 23, just as it is at the present time when February 22 falls on the Sunday preceding.”

Um…wrong. That is just plain wrong. February 22 can NEVER fall on the third Monday. It can fall on the fourth Monday but never on the third Monday. Two representatives from Virginia (Washington’s home state) saw through this ruse and countered

“Now what that really means is never again will the birthday of the Father of our Country be observed on February 22 because the third Monday will always fall between the 15th of February and the 21st of February.”

Right on!

And proposed an ammendement to retain Washington’s actual birth date as the national holiday. Which failed.

So here we are celebrating two birthday observance that can have as few as two days separating them or as many as eight. Like this year — Lincoln’s birthday is actually February 12th. And we honour Washington today — the 18th. That’s just 6 days.

And then there is the name. Lincoln is not a federal holiday. And though a majority of the states shifted the date of Washington’s Birthday to correspond to the third Monday in February, some states choose to rename it “Presidents’ Day.” Not only could crossing state borders on Washington’s Birthday could lead to holiday title confusion, but advertisers have just added to the confusion.

And I personally have found it confusing that we call Lincoln “Honest Abe” while we tell the midrash of Washington and the cherry tree as a way to exemplify his honesty.

Am I the only one???

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, 19 February 2008 7:36 pm

    I just find it amusing that the USCC and NRF are involved in determining our federal holidays! The importance of the days are lost as they turn into huge shopping weekends…


  1. Jewish Holidays 2008 - HOLIDAYS GUIDE – HOLIDAYS GUIDE

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