Sunday, February 23, 2014

Punctuate This: Remembering the Original President's Day

No wonder we can't figure out complicated problems like health care and climate change. We can't even figure out how to punctuate Presidents Day.

George Washington probably wouldn't have 
minded our changing the date we celebrate his birthday. 
A change in calendar systems during his lifetime shifted 
his birthday from February 11 to February 22. And, because 
the latest the third Monday can be is the 21st, we never again 
will celebrate his birthday on February 22. Never say never, 
however; the 1968 bill also moved Veterans Day to the fourth 
Monday in October -- but that only lasted until 1975 when it 
wasreturned to its November 11 origins.
Many of us of a certain age remember making stovepipe hats out of black construction paper on February 12, eating cherry pie on February 22, and having no school on either day.

Pity our children and grandchildren. The Uniform Holiday Bill of 1968 moved Washington's Birthday, as it had been called since 1885, to the third Monday in February. President Lyndon Johnson justified the change
 by saying it would "enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities" and it would reduce the disruption caused by mid-week, non-uniform holidays.

The 1968 bill also had proposed renaming the holiday Presidents' Day (apostrophe after the s) to honor both Washington and Lincoln. But that part of the bill got lost. And, even though the bill had passed in 1968, it didn't take effect until January 1, 1971, when President Nixon signed Executive Order 11582.

Technically, we celebrate one president's birthday (apostrophe before the s) because the holiday is still listed in federal statutes as Washington's Birthday. State statutes are another matter.

On the third Monday in February, for instance, Alabamians officially celebrate George Washington's birthday and Thomas Jefferson's birthday -- even though Jefferson was born in April. Somehow, Jefferson's birthday slipped into the state calendar in 1907.

Florida doesn't list any official holidays in February. Indiana celebrates Washington's Birthday in December.

Merchants, wanting to milk the day for all it's worth, tend to refer to it as Presidents Day, President's Day, or Presidents' Day, but also tend to picture only Washington or Lincoln in ads--if they make any historical reference at all.

Presidents Day (no apostrophe) has become the officially preferred designation, even though President's Day is the p.c. -- punctuationally correct -- version and even though the Chicago Manual of Style and many dictionaries prefer Presidents' Day. And even though it officially is still just Washington's Birthday.

With the latest round of presidential candidates preparing to ride into their respective Jerusalems so convention delegates can raise the palm branches and shout 'Hosanna!' we should acknowledge the peculiar combination of destiny and drive that has drawn fewer than 50 people -- people very different in parentage, in education, in religion, in character, and in conviction of what was best for this country -- to occupy its highest office.

We also should acknowledge that we, among the nations of the earth, can most truly say to our children that any of them might grow up to be President of the United States. We should not take either of those peculiarities for granted, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the current occupant of the office.

It's time to make it official. Presidents Day.

No apostrophe. Honoring our past. Keeping faith with our future.

If we can do that, maybe there's hope for finding consensus on health care and climate change.