As the first month of a rigorous spring semester comes to a close, students will have a day to rest on Monday, Feb. 21, in celebration of Presidents’ Day. As working, full-time students we are grateful to have the day off from our classes and jobs. However, to usher in this long weekend, our staff discussed how we feel about taking a day off in memory of U.S. presidents, and what exactly we are meant to celebrate.
In order to understand the holiday, we had to research its origins. In short, Presidents’ Day was first celebrated in the 1880s on George Washington’s birthday. A century later, congress debated changing the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day to include Abraham Lincoln in the celebration. This suggestion was rejected, but the holiday still became widely known as Presidents’ Day. Since then, some have expanded celebrations to include all U.S. presidents.
This begs the question, what are we really celebrating, and does it warrant a day off? USF lists this holiday as “Presidents’ Day,” the more commonly used name, as opposed to “Washington Day.” If the holiday were limited to celebrating Washington, we would have to consider his life as a slave owner and misogynist, among other things. However, this name asks us to more broadly consider the span of U.S. presidents, which includes many more individuals whose values do not align with our own.
Given the barbaric, discriminatory, and sanctimonious history of the establishment of the United States and our government, it is hard to truly “celebrate” any holiday such as Presidents’ Day without critically reflecting on the conditions under which it was established and under which our former presidents governed.
President’s Day could be reframed, so that it does not connote the celebration of the predominantly white, upper-class men who were granted positions of power while actively subordinating and oppressing other groups of people (e.g. indigenous and Black populations, who are still systematically disadvantaged and discriminated against). It seems contradictory that President’s Day is celebrated within the larger context of Black History Month, considering that all but one of our presidents have been white, and many were slave owners. Lincoln is often praised within a historical context for “freeing the slaves.” However, even he did not believe Black people should be granted the same rights as white people and enacted his policies with that mindset.
We praise these men as heroes in so many facets of American culture, especially within our education system, without critically reflecting on who these men were and how their belief systems were morally flawed. Our former presidents, especially their countenance, are largely reflective of the ideas of superiority and exclusion upon which our country’s government was founded.
It is also questionable because there are so many days that are not recognized as national holidays that deserve to be. What about International Women’s Day, Earth Day, and National Immigration Day? Are these days less important because we don’t get them off? Though very slow progress has been made in recognizing other days of importance, like Juneteenth, how long will it take to establish more holidays that celebrate marginalized communities as opposed to their oppressors?
Presidents’ Day itself is not needed for celebrations, reflections, or even traditions; it does not have strong cultural ties, and its biggest boast is discounted clothing and mattresses. If we wanted a political holiday we could all get the day off for, why not Election Day? Yes, most states require employers to allow a few hours off for voting, but having the whole day off could alleviate in-person voting crowds. Having this holiday would remind and allow reflection on the importance of our voting rights, and empower the citizens of this country as opposed to its leaders.