In recent years I have had difficulty understanding and appreciating the mid-winter holiday now known as “Presidents’ Day.” Are we celebrating specific presidents’ lives any more, or is it just about the huge sales and promotions advertised by department stores, auto dealers, and restaurant chains?
When I was a kid I recall distinctly that we celebrated two presidents’ birthdays: Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12 and George Washington’s on February 22. I remember the classroom bulletin boards with posters and pictures celebrating their lives. Lincoln’s display usually included a log cabin, a copy of his Gettysburg Address, and one of the famous Brady photographs; Washington’s featured a boy with an axe and cherry tree, a reproduction of Leutze’s famous Crossing the Delaware, and Washington taking the Oath of Office as first President of the United States.
In the lower grades I colored pictures of the presidents and learned about their lives, mostly that Lincoln grew up in a log cabin with a dirt floor and that Washington didn’t lie to his father about cutting down the cherry tree. In the upper grades teachers would take at least one social studies lesson and focus on each president’s life. We didn’t get off for Lincoln’s Birthday, but we did get the day off for Washington’s birthday (but only if it fell on a weekday).
In 1971 Washington’s Birthday was declared a legal public holiday and was designated to be celebrated on the third Monday of February, although people could still observe both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays on the original days unofficially. I am not sure when all this changed, but sometime when I was in high school the name of the day was changed to Presidents’ Day. After that it has all been pretty nebulous as far as I am concerned, and even teachers I asked did not know whom we were celebrating.
A look at various advertisements in this week’s local newspapers (here in New York City) clearly seems to weigh in on the side of Lincoln and Washington. Their familiar profiles grace the ads as they have throughout my life. Yet a few advertisers go against this trend and depict more current presidents (one with Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton made me chuckle and think of Saturday Night Live’s satirical “Ex-Presidents” cartoon).
In the stack of calendars I received from various places last December, there is no consensus to be found. Some have Washington and Lincoln’s pictures within the box for Monday, February 20; others show a sketch of Mount Rushmore or just Washington or Lincoln; a few have nothing at all on the date except the words “Presidents’ Day.” If I were a kid these days I would be equally confounded by this situation because some schools continue with the Lincoln-Washington bulletin boards and celebrations, yet others actually celebrate “all presidents” and put up posters featuring every president with little biographies under each photograph.
I have nothing against the notion of celebrating the lives of every president, but I think some clarification is needed to set the record straight. I’d like to see this day be one that helps students understand the significance of honoring presidents, yet they also need to know there are profound differences in the way some presidents handled the role of leading our nation. I believe the truly “great” presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy need a bit more focus than some of the others who did not make as indelible a mark in history.
While I like to think Presidents’ Day should be an important holiday, I can’t shake the notion that the day is really more about those newspapers that are extra heavy this weekend from all the advertisements meant to boost lackluster midwinter sales. Presidents’ Day is not alone in being exploited for this purpose; in fact, I think every major holiday now gets an equal dose of this sordid practice. The kids know it and we adults do, too. This dilutes the importance of the day and basically nullifies the intention of those who originally passed laws to make it (and other days) national holidays.
Unless we get a major drive to close all retail establishments on holidays, this trend will unfortunately continue. I doubt anyone will take up the initiative because as someone told me the other day (after I ranted and raved about these annoying holiday sales), “It’s good for the economy, stupid.”
I guess I’d like to live in more simple times like when a little Virginia boy took an axe, chopped down his father’s cherry tree, and then admitted he did it and accepted punishment; or when a poor boy living in a log cabin with a dirt floor in Illinois studied by candlelight, became a lawyer, and then aspired to be President.
Perhaps these stories are more like tall tales these days, but they affected me and my perception of the presidency and the nation as I was growing up. They made me think of these presidents as real people, not just faces on a bulletin board or the one dollar and five dollar bills. It also led me to believe that in America anyone with enough drive and determination could become anything, even the President of the United States.
I suspect that kids in this generation (and in generations to come) might not have the same experiences I had and thus will be at a disadvantage, especially because they are too busy accompanying their parents to the malls to partake in the holiday sales frenzy. We shouldn’t just be sad about this; we should be ashamed.