What exactly are we celebrating today?
Presidents Day? Presidents' Day? President's Day? Wandering Apostrophe Day?
And whom exactly does it honor?
Is it just one president (Washington)? Or two (Washington and Lincoln)? Or the whole lot (including Warren G. Harding)? The apostrophe's placement, assuming an apostrophe is used, depends on whether we're celebrating more than one president today, right?
Officials should have the official word. Here in El Cerrito, the calendar on the city's Web site declares it "Presidents Day," taking the politically ambiguous and grammatically liberal course of omitting the apostrophe altogether. The city-run Recycling Center, however, opts for the singular "President's Day" on its web page, though it doesn't indicate which president is being honored.
Perhaps the officials in charge of education would be more informed? The calendar of the West Contra Costa Unified School District lists "Presidents' Week Recess," apparently intent on honoring at least two presidents.
Perhaps higher authorities in Sacramento, government of the nation's largest state, have a consistent approach? The California Senate observes "President's Day," while the state Employment Development Department celebrates "Presidents' Day." And the state Board of Equalization? You guessed it: "Presidents Day."
So, what do they say at the top of U.S. officialdom – the federal government? In the eyes of Uncle Sam, the answer is — none of the above.
Today's federal holiday is officially called "Washington's Birthday."
It was signed into law in 1879, to be observed annually on Feb. 22, Washington's birthday. In 1968, with the passage of Public Law 90-363, Congress moved it to the third Monday of February but retained the name "Washington's Birthday."
"This holiday is designated as 'Washington's Birthday' in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees," intones the "Federal Holidays" Web page of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, official keeper of federal employee holiday entitlements. "Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."
A holiday guide, Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, offers further explanation:
"The passage of Public Law 90-363 in 1968, also known as the 'Monday Holiday Law,' changed the observance of Washington's Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Because it occurs so soon after Lincoln's Birthday, many states — such as Hawaii, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — combine the two holidays and call it Presidents' Day or Washington-Lincoln Day. Some regard it as a day to honor all former presidents of the United States."
So while some jurisdictions may call it Presidents Day (with or without an apostrophe on either side of the "s"), it is devoted solely to George Washington in its role as an official federal holiday.
But lest you feel George's birthday is getting unfair preferential treatment, consider this: since the holiday was moved to the third Monday of the month, it can never fall on his birthday.