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What is President’s Day about?

Why is it celebrated?

To some, the observance of Presidents’ Day in the United States goes very much unnoticed. Local newspapers splash ads of “President’s Day Sales!” and many get the day off from work. But have you ever stopped to think about this important day of recognition?


Presidents’ Day is intended to honor all the American presidents, but most significantly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. According to the Gregorian or “New Style” calendar that is most commonly used today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. But according to the Julian or “Old Style” calendar that was used in England until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. Back in the 1790s, Americans were split – some celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

When Abraham Lincoln became president and helped reshape our country, it was believed he, too, should have a special day of recognition. Tricky thing was that Lincoln’s birthday fell on February 12th. Prior to 1968, having two presidential birthdays so close together didn’t seem to bother anyone. February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

In 1968, things changed when the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays. They voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington’s Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971, and as a result, Washington’s Birthday holiday was changed to the third Monday in February. But not all Americans were happy with the new law. There was some concern that Washington’s identity would be lost since the third Monday in February would never fall on his actual birthday. There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday “Presidents’ Day”, but the idea didn’t go anywhere since some believed not all presidents deserved a special recognition.

Even though Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Some states, like California, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday “President’s Day.” From that point forward, the term “Presidents’ Day” became a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or week-long sales.

In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington’s Birthday be “officially” called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.

The federal holiday, Washington’s Birthday, honors the accomplishments of the man known as “The Father of his Country”. Celebrated for his leadership in the founding of the nation, he was the Electoral College’s unanimous choice to become the first President; he was seen as a unifying force for the new republic and set an example for future holders of the office.

The holiday is also a tribute to the general who created the first military badge of merit for the common soldier. Revived on Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932, the Purple Heart medal (which bears Washington’s image) is awarded to soldiers who are injured in battle. As with Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Washington’s Birthday offers another opportunity to honor the country’s veterans.     In 2007 the country celebrated both Washington’s 275th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the rebirth of the Purple Heart medal.

Community celebrations often display a lengthy heritage. Washington’s hometown of historic Alexandria, Virginia, hosts a month-long tribute, including the longest running George Washington Birthday parade, while the community of Eustis, Florida, continues its annual “George Fest” celebration begun in 1902. In Denver, Colorado there is a society dedicated to observing the day. At the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and at Mount Vernon, visitors are treated to birthday celebrations throughout the federal holiday weekend and through February 22.

Since 1862 there has been a tradition in the United States Senate that George Washington’s Farewell Address be read on his birthday. Citizens had asked that this be done in light of the approaching Civil War. The annual tradition continues with the reading of the address on or near Washington’s Birthday.

Today, President’s Day is well accepted and celebrated. Some communities still observe the original holidays of Washington and Lincoln, and many parks actually stage reenactments and pageants in their honor. The National Park Service also features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, as well as other important leaders.

Where to Visit

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument in VA, holds an annual birthday   celebration on President’s Day and on his actual birthday. Visitors can enjoy special colonial activities held throughout the day. Mount Vernon (now part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway) also honors George Washington with a birthday celebration weekend and an annual fee-free day (the third Monday of February).

Annual activities to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday include: a February 12th wreath laying ceremony at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in KY; Lincoln Day, held each year on the Sunday closest to February 12th at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in IN; and special birthday programs at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in IL. Each year, other special events are added, so be sure to check park calendars before you travel.

Many Americans celebrate this day by camping, travel or recreation. Some people celebrate by going to picnics with their families and friends. Schools have the students travel around to try to teach other students about the U.S. Presidents especially Washington and Lincoln.

However, there are those who believe that this day was meant only for George Washington as he led the Americans in the War of Independence and created the new constitution.

Kathy Kiefer



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vabeachboardwalk2An annual event that is interesting and fascinating is the Display of Lights at Bull Run Regional Park.   Bull Run Christmas Lights, officially named the Bull Run Festival of Lights, is a 2.5-mile drive-through holiday light show at Bull Run Regional Park featuring penguins, snowmen, candy canes, jumping deer, Santa’s workshop, Frosty the Snowman, tin soldiers, elves and Santa. The seasonal event includes more than 40,000 animated lights set to music! After viewing the lights you can visit the Winter Wonderland Holiday Village that includes amusement rides, an ice skating rink, entertainment, shopping, contests, food, and more.    Every year the theme is different, and has been a holiday fixture for more than 12 years.    Other areas put on festivals of lights as well.  Another light show of note is the Zoo Lights at the National Zoo where the majority of the displays represent the animals that call the zoo home.  In many of the communities and towns in Virginia, as in most of the country, many homes (even balconies of apartments) are decorated with lights and more for the holiday.  Most are tastefully done, while there are some that could be considered tacky.  It’s all in the person’s taste I guess, and inevitably you get someone that is always trying to one-up someone else with their outside decorations.   There are even homes were every available outside space is taken up with lights and more leaving no room (one would think) for anything else.   Somehow those owners always find room for additional lights or decorations.

At Arlington National Cemetery (formerly the estate of the family of General Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary Ann Custis (she was a great granddaughter of Martha Washington) hence the treesproper name of the mansion is Custis-Lee Mansion but now is called Arlington House) every grave is adorned with a wreath (unless the deceased is of a faith that does not celebrate Christmas).  Even the mansion is decorated with period ornaments and decorations from when General and Mrs. Lee lived there and from Mrs. Lee’s family.

mount-vernon-by-candle-light-ii-tom-harrisNearby at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the estate of the first American President George Washington, Christmas at Mount Vernon has been named as one of the “12 Places to Catch the Holiday Spirit”.   Mount Vernon is joyfully decking the halls for Christmas at Mount Vernon, a special daytime program offered through January. Themed decorations (including 12 Christmas trees), historical chocolate-making demonstrations, and 18th-century dancing will be offered. Visitors are offered a glimpse of how the Washington’s decorated and entertained during the holiday season.  Decorating and entertaining at General Washington’s time was different than we know it today, an intriguing view of how things evolved over the last 4oo years with holiday traditions.

Tour the rarely-open third floor of the Mansion and learn how the Washington’s celebrated Christmas. In 1787, George Washington paid 18 shillings to bring a camel to Mount Vernon foto_801_88528for the enjoyment of his guests. During Christmas at Mount Vernon, visitors can meet Aladdin, the resident camel.   He is a charming fellow of sorts.    Experience Washington’s most festive holiday event — Mount Vernon by Candlelight! Meet people from Washington’s world as you tour the Mansion in the evening. The popular seasonal tradition includes music, dancing, and holiday treats.

  • Seasonal Decorations: Mount Vernon decks the halls throughout the estate with themed Christmas trees and festive holiday touches. Traditional boughs of hand-cut greenery will adorn doorways in the Mansion, which will be staged with an elaborate holiday course in the formal dining room. The Mansion’s rooms will also be changed from their normal appearance to reflect the home preparing for overnight guests. And Martha Washington’s “Great Cake” will take center stage (and visitors may take home her original recipe which called for more than 40 eggs).
  • In Old Town Alexandria every year on the 1st weekend of December there is the annual Scottish Christmas Walk   During the Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend hundreds of Scottish clansmen parade with their bagpipes through Old Town Alexandria. The family-friendly holiday event is a traditional favorite of the Alexandria community, including tours of historic homes, a children’s tea party, a Celtic Concert and a Christmas Marketplace and Café.
    The Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend is one of the largest fundraising activities for the Campagna Center, a non-profit organization that serves children and families in need in Alexandria, Virginia and pays tribute as well to Alexandria’s Scottish Heritage.


Other historic homes in Virginia such as Gunston Hall (George Mason), Montpelier (President and Mrs. Madison), Poplar Forest, scotwalkVATCMonticello (President Thomas Jefferson), Ash Lawn-Highland (President and Mrs. Monroe) and others the visitor will find them decorated in period style for the holidays and most have special and unique programs that reveal how the holidays were celebrated there.

At Monticello, start your evening with an intimate tour revealing how the holidays were celebrated there by President Jefferson. Visit the rarely seen third-floor dome room. At the conclusion of your tour, sample culinary delights from Jefferson’s time paired with Virginia wine. You will go home with a copy of one of eight recipes found in Jefferson’s own hand to inspire your holiday table.

At Ash Lawn-Highland, Fresh boxwood, fruits, holly and more adorn the historic home in the early 19th century style of President James and Elizabeth Monroe, with a late 19th century emphasis in the Victorian addition.

An important place not to be missed either at the holidays or any time of the year is Colonial Williamsburg (the original capitol of the United States).    All of the buildings in the colonial capitol are decorated in the proper colonial style, representing the time period in US History (the only difference would be in the private areas of the historic area where visitors are not allowed, one can decorate a bit more modern).

UnknownFestive and fun.   Williamsburg’s Christmas Parade brings out the Christmas spirit like no other. From Duke of Gloucester Street and73608223_2148033dec_z Richmond Road to William and Mary Hall, people line the streets to take in military and musical shows, decorated floats and fire trucks, antique cars and animals dressed in their holiday best, and, perhaps, even a glimpse of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, locals and visitors alike gather at the Courthouse steps on Duke of Gloucester Street for the annual Williamsburg Community Christmas Tree Lightening, and the traditional retelling of the city’s first Christmas tree.

The festive decorations and timeless charm of the Revolutionary City set the stage for an unforgettable experience.   Experience the stirring ceremony Firing of the Christmas Guns -a tradition dating back to the 18th-century in which guns are fired in salute to the Christmas season as an expression of joy and celebration – complete with the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums.

An historic observation:

As traditional and familiar as most any English Christmas carol, the song is among the seasons more anachronistic, an evocation of a holiday custom that pretty much puzzles modern celebrants: wassailing.    Rings of orange and lemon afloat, the wassail bowl filled with spiced wine or ale is a tradition that goes back a thousand years and more.

Here we come a-wassailing

Among the leaves so green;

Here we come a-wand’ring

So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too;

And God bless you and send you

a happy New Year.

Wassailing? What was wassailing?

wassail40The term has evolved in English for more than a millennium, from its origins as a simple greeting, to its use as a toast in ritualized drinking, to its absorption into holiday customs rooted in notions of social propriety and the intentional suspension thereof.   The text of the carol employs noun and verb forms of “wassail,” a word derived from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate.” The phrase found first use as a simple greeting, but the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England seem to have turned was hail, and the reply drink hail, into a drinking formula adopted widely by the indigenous population of England—so much so that the Norman conquerors who arrived in the eleventh century regarded the toast as distinctive of the English natives.

“A Colonial Christmas” in December at Jamestown Settlement and the Yorktown Victory Center explores holiday traditions of 17th- and 18th-century Virginia through special interpretive programs and, from songs and sounds of the holiday season with musical performances on fifes and drums, violin, guitar, recorder, hurdy-gurdy, and pipe and tabor.

Enjoy a festive holiday evening during “At Christmas be mery” at Historic Jamestowne when the “Captain of the Guard” escorts guests along a cresset-lit path to sing carols in the grand-illumination-williamsburgJamestown Church and take in a bonfire with refreshments and the firing of Christmas guns.

Richmond, VA

Celebrate the season at Maymont and revel in Victorian holiday splendor! Major & Mrs. Dooley’s spectacularly decorated Gilded Age home brings the wonders and festivities of Christmas past to life. Beautiful trimmings on the 12-foot Christmas tree, the opulent dining room set for a feast, evergreen decorations and lavish gifts welcome the season in grand Victorian style. In the below stairs area, preparations are underway to make the Dooley’s’ first Christmas in their new home special for their family and friends – and to put everyone in the holiday spirit!

Share the glow of the season and experience millions of lights and hundreds of events from Virginia’s capital city to the Atlantic Ocean. The region will glitter and glow, sparkle and shine with lights, lights and more lights. 100 Miles of Lights features holiday events and activities in Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.     Drive-through and walk-through light shows will dazzle and shine with more than two million lights, providing a colorful backdrop to the wide range of events and activities for the young and young-at-heart. Lighted boat parades, city illuminations, festivals, parades, living history re-enactments, caroling, dining events, music and dance are among the many activities occurring throughout the region from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Kathy Kiefer