According to the Gregorian or “New Style” calendar that is in use today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, but according to the Julian or “Old Style” calendar that was in effect in England and her colonies until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. (This is because the new calendar added eleven days to the old date to bring the calendar year into step with the astronomical year.) So back in the 1790s, while Washington was still alive, some Americans celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.
Along came Abraham Lincoln, another famous US president, who was also deserving of a special day of recognition. The only problem was that he was born on February 12th, and so now we found ourselves with two presidential birthdays that fell within a short time of one another. Prior to 1968, this fact didn’t seem to bother anyone and things were running along pretty smoothly in the birthday celebration department — February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday (in most states) to honor the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.
Then things changed. In 1968, the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays, so they voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington’s Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971. As a result, Washington’s Birthday holiday was changed from its fixed February 22 date to the third Monday in February. This change was not without controversy. There was some concern that Washington’s identity would be lost (since the third Monday in February would never fall on his birth date of February 22nd). There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday “Presidents’ Day”, but this stalled in committee. “It was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary,” stated Mr. William Moore McCulloch (R-Ohio) “that this [naming the day “President’s Day”] would be unwise. Certainly, not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country. There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain Presidents. Moreover, it is probable that the members of one political party would not relish honoring a President from the other political party whether he was in office, no matter how outstanding history may find his leadership.”
The single holiday observance meant that the traditional 10-day separation between Washington’s Birthday (February 22) and Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12) had essentially been eliminated. However, while Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Even though most states with individual holidays honoring Washington and Lincoln shifted their state recognition date of Washington’s Birthday to correspond to the third Monday in February, some states, including  California, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas and others, chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday “President’s Day.”
From that point forward, the growing use of the term Presidents’ Day was largely a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought a catchall phrase to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or weeklong sales. Gradually, the phrase “Presidents’ Day” took hold and today has become part of the everyday vernacular. Interestingly, in 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington’s Birthday be “officially” called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.
If you are a traditionalist, you’ll be happy to know that even though Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday have been replaced on the federal holiday register with a single day, many communities continue to observe the original holidays by staging pageants and reenactments of important milestones in the lives of Washington and Lincoln. The National Park Service features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, and therefore it is not surprising to find that many of the birthday observance activities and events are held at many of these locations.