Shop till you drop! Parades and Pageantry! Although intended as a day to honor George Washington on his birthday, Presidents Day has become a traditional day of spring shopping and community pageantry as an early prelude to spring. There are few uniform traditions that tie directly to Presidents Day, but if one scours the country traditional celebrations are discovered in towns all across America paying tribute to Washington as well as other US Presidents on this day in February.
Federal law in the 1960s proclaimed the third Monday in February as a Federal holiday to honor the nation's first President, George Washington. There was a movement at that time to include remembrance of Abraham Lincoln on the same date, effectively creating what we now refer to as Presidents Day. Unknown by most citizens, that part of the legislation never passed. and the Federal law does not officially include Lincoln's birthday. Most people equate Presidents Day with both Washington and Lincoln since both were born in February and the date falls in between their birthdays.
Presidents Day celebrations and traditions vary from region to region within the United States. Typically, states celebrate the US Presidents who have come from that home state with official state pageantry along with celebrations related to Washington and Lincoln. Country fairs, parades, and elementary school pageants celebrating the Presidency are common traditions throughout the United States in February.
In the Washington DC area, Arlington, Virginia, The Gadsby's Tavern Museum holds a Birthnight Ball, in true British fashion. Birthnight in Britain is a celebration of the ruling monarch's birth date. Although, not a monarch, Washington's ties to England and the time the colonies fell under British rule makes this an exciting tradition on his birthday.
Laredo, Texas holds a Washington's Birthday celebration that lasts the entire month of February with parades, dances, parties, and of course retail sales specials meant to lure shoppers in for the bargains. Elementary school children color, draw, and build projects commemorating the life of the nation's first President. Although quite patriotic, it is also an excellent opportunity to generate sales after the first of the year slump begins to hit the retail industry. "Shop til you drop" takes on new meaning in Laredo, Texas in February.
Traditionally, February is a month for elementary school children all over the United States to study the US Presidency. Traditions vary from school to school and city to city, but they all generally include recitations of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the retelling of Washington's Cherry Tree fable. Children dress in costume, sing songs, tell stories, and create art work all to the delight of their parents and communities.
Depending on family values and priorities, Presidents Day is also a time to expose children to American History. Families across the country use this as a time to focus on the contributions, not only of Washington and Lincoln, but other Presidents as well. In some families, cherry pies, cakes, and cookies are baked in remembrance of Washington's Cherry Tree story. Some families re-read the Gettysburg Address and discuss its significance with their children.
African American families, in particular, take the time during February to celebrate Black History Month as it relates to the American Civil War and Lincoln's issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Lincoln and Black History are inseparable for this reason.
Presidents Day traditions are as varied and unique as our communities and homes care to make them. There is no official traditional way to appreciate the day. It is up to the individual community, home, family, or school to create and celebrate as it deems appropriate. Regardless of community tradition, our calendars remind us in February of the significant contributions made by two of America's most outstanding Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.