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The Federal Holiday Is Still Washington's Birthday, So Why Do Some Call It Presidents' Day?

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Monday, Feb. 21, is both a federal and state holiday, but knowing what exactly to call it can be tricky.

Some call it George Washington's birthday, while others call it Presidents' Day.

Those over the age of 60 remember when Feb. 22 was a state and federal holiday to celebrate the birthday of George Washington, the man who led Americans to victory and independence, and our first president.

But that all changed when Congress rearranged our national holidays.

"Presidents' Day is an unofficial name for the holiday," said Prof. Andrew Simpson, a Duquesne University historian. "It comes out of some larger changes in how we celebrate federal holidays in the U.S. since the 1960s."

Spurred by the retail business community and chambers of commerce, Congress adopted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, saying a three-day weekend was good for business and workers.

Washington's birthday was one of the casualties, moved in 1971 to the third Monday in February.

"Whenever you have a three-day holiday, one of the big concerns, of course, even when it was being proposed, was the idea that the holiday would become more about commerce and less about celebrating George Washington," Simpson said.

While the date of the holiday was moved, its name never changed. It's still Washington's birthday. So where did this notion of Presidents' Day come from?

Presidents' Day was the brainchild of Harold Stonebridge Fischer back in the 1950s; he wanted to celebrate the office of the presidency. He had wanted a separate holiday in March, but Congress rejected the idea.

After Washington's birthday became a Monday holiday, the business community used advertising to rename Washington's birthday as Presidents' Day.

"By the 1980s and 1990s, Presidents' Day became an important sales day for businesses across the United States like Memorial Day and Labor Day became important sales holidays as well," Simpson said.

By the 1980s, advertisers – of mattresses, appliances and cars – started to call Washington's birthday Presidents' Day instead.

It was a fake name never approved by Congress, but it caught on through the advertisements. Today, 24 states have changed their state holiday to Presidents' Day.

"(It) does raise some questions about if in fact by not focusing events directly on Washington that day we're losing that celebration of American civic identity and of Washington," Simpson said.

WATCH: KDKA's Jon Delano reports

Sometimes it seems like it's all about money and sales. Despite that, Simpson said he thinks Americans today are still learning about George Washington, a product of his times with all his many faults, who nonetheless led America to its independence and shaped the American presidency.

"George Washington is someone who has an important legacy and contribution to understanding the United States, whether it's how we understand the norms of the presidency and how we understand the transfer of power in the United States," the historian said.

"To me, that's a legacy that's worth celebrating and worth commemorating," Simpson added.

The federal holiday is still Washington's birthday, and so is the state holiday in neighboring New York, Maryland, and West Virginia. Ohio calls it Washington-Lincoln Day.

What about Pennsylvania? In 1985, the General Assembly and Gov. Dick Thornburgh renamed the state holiday Presidents' Day.

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