On the third Monday of February, there is some giant blowout sale at nearly every retail and online store in the country. The fliers and emails read,
- “Fifty percent off everything in the store!”
But what for? What holiday are we celebrating?
Well, that depends of course. Depends on what? Well, that depends on where you plan to go shopping.
If you look at your email inbox, you’ll notice a remarkable lack of consistency between those advertising sales to you. J.C. Penney may be having a Presidents Day sale; Macy’s may be having a President’s Day sale; and Nordstrom may be having Presidents’ Day.
How Do You Spell Presidents’ Day?
Presidents-President’s-Presidents’ Day is an interesting holiday because no one is exactly sure how to spell it. (There’s also no consensus on what presidents it is even celebrating.)
Where should you put the apostrophe? Should there be one at all? Never mind the fact that the holiday we celebrate on the third Monday each February doesn’t go by any of these names—at least officially. The official federal holiday is known as “Washington’s Birthday.”
That’s right; after all of this confusion on punctuation, we aren’t even using the holiday’s real name.
Where Does This Leave Us?
In the rest of this post, I want to give a short history of Washington’s Birthday, otherwise known as Presidents’ Day, and briefly talk about how we got here as well as give you some style advice on how to proceed.
History of Presidents’ Day
The holiday now colloquially referred to as Presidents’ Day is actually officially known as Washington’s Birthday. It began in 1879 by an act of Congress for government offices in the District of Columbia. By 1885, it was expanded to include all federal offices, and state governments soon joined in on making the day a holiday.
Since this was the first federal holiday to honor any U.S. president, the holiday was celebrated on George Washington’s birthday, February 22nd.
The holiday changed dates, however, in the early 1970s as a part of the Uniform Holiday Monday Act. This change, led by a coalition of travel organizations, was designed to give federal workers certain holidays on Mondays to create a number of long weekends throughout the year.
As a result of the date change, the name Washington’s Birthday became a misnomer since the law now placed the holiday on the Monday between February 15 and 21, yet Washington’s Birthday is the 22nd. There were some who led a charge to officially change the name of the holiday to Presidents’ Day, in honor of both Lincoln and Washington, both of whom have birthdays in February, but Congress rejected the proposal.
Despite this, there is a widespread belief that the day has been officially renamed, a belief that is only reinforced by all of the advertising surrounding Presidents’ Day Weekend and by looking at a calendar to see that Washington’s Birthday can never actually coincide with the holiday.
While the name may not be officially changed, Presidents’ Day is extremely common and a completely acceptable way to refer to the holiday, and to many state governments, the holiday is officially known as Presidents’ Day.
How Should I Spell the Holiday?
We now circle back to our original question, how should we spell Presidents’ Day?
Some people prefer there to be no apostrophe, Presidents Day, arguing that the day is for presidents but not belonging to them.
Some people prefer the apostrophe before the “s,” President’s Day, arguing that since the official holiday is Washington’s Birthday clearly there is only a single president in mind.
Some people prefer the apostrophe after the “s,” Presidents’ Day, arguing that Washington and Lincoln are both in mind when you say Presidents’ Day.
There is no universal agreement as to which spelling is correct, which is part of the humor of the holiday. No one is sure how to spell the holiday or even which presidents the day celebrates. It is merely up to the preferences of the author or editor, or in the case of state governments, the law will dictate the official spelling. The important thing to keep in mind, however, is to always be consistent. Never use two different spelling of Presidents’ Day in the same piece of writing.
I personally prefer the plural possessive, Presidents’ Day, because I think it most accurately communicates what people mean when they use the term.The modern conscience, right or wrong, includes Washington and Lincoln in the celebration of the holiday, so having the plural possessive makes the most sense in my mind.
Washington’s Birthday is clearly Washington specific, but it doesn’t seem that Presidents’ Day is so clear cut, especially since the holiday doesn’t exist as far as the federal government is concerned.
The Chicago Manual of Style advises to use the plural possessive Presidents’ Day.
The AP Stylebook advises to use the plural no possessive Presidents Day.
Remember also that since Washington’s Birthday and Presidents’ Day both refer to a specific holiday, they should always be capitalized. So if you see “presidents’ day” make sure to capitalize it.
See also, how to spell April Fools’ Day, how to spell Father’s Day.