Like anything involving the federal government, it’s complicated.
The high-level view is that Presidents Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. This year it’s Monday, February 18. But it goes all the way back to 1800. Following the death of George Washington in 1799, his birthday – February 22 – became a perennial day of remembrance… or so it was thought at the time.
For most of the 1800s Washington’s Birthday was observed unofficially. Then, in the late 1870s it was designated as a federal holiday. First to propose the measure was Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas. In 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. Even then, it only officially applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the whole country.
At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays: Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. It was the first official national holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, signed into law in 1983, was the second.
Then the federal government became involved again: In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act designated the third Monday in February as Presidents Day. This was an effort to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.
Several states still have celebrate holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, but Presidents Day is popularly viewed as the nationwide day to celebrate U.S. presidents, past and present.