No cake. No ice cream. Forget the balloons.
Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day. When I went to school, we celebrated both Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays. Not only did we study them thoroughly in the classroom, but we then had each of their birthdays off as a legal school holiday.
Now I realize I went to school so long ago I could have played dodge ball with Abe and George, but the point was we learned in our classrooms who these men were, what their contributions had been, and the indelible marks they had made on the shape and form of American history. I remember the classroom walls covered in red, white, and blue construction paper upon which were Lincoln’s and Washington’s pictures, essays written about them in class, and pertinent facts from the library.
I’m not criticizing today’s school systems, because I’m sure there are many responsible teachers who make sure their charges know something about these great men. My complaint lies with the automobile dealers, the furniture and mattress stores, and the retailers who have somehow made two men’s birthdays into an occasion to shop till you drop.
I don’t even remember when it was exactly that the holidays morphed into one car-buying spree, but when I lived in Central New York there was a very successful car dealer named Joey Romanello. Joey had several dealerships throughout the area, did a boatload of advertising, and was both a very visible and cutting-edge businessman. However he managed each Presidents’ Day holiday to stoop to what has to be one of the true lows in the advertising world when he took out large newspaper ads with a picture of George Washington upon whose neck was superimposed Joey’s face. And generally the ad had an eye catching headline like “Joey Romanello will not tell a lie.”
It was not wonderful the first year those ads appeared, but they continued in this vein each and every Presidents’ Day thereafter. Any comparison between him and the father of our country was so scant it could have fit into one of Joey’s glove compartments.
But Joey was not alone in this retail enthusiasm. Many other car dealerships, furniture stores, and retail establishments have jumped on the bandwagon, using a patriotic holiday as an excuse to make the register ring. I never looked upon Joey’s head superimposed on Washington’s body and found it humorous, nor did it empower me to run out and buy a car. Matter of fact, it made me nauseous.
The original version of this holiday was in commemoration of Washington’s birthday in 1796, the last full year of his presidency. According to the calendar that had been used since at least the mid-18th century, George was born on February 22, 1732, but according to the old style calendar in use back then he was born February 11.
By the early 19th century, Washington’s birthday had taken firm root in America as a national holiday. Celebrations included Birthright Balls, speeches, receptions, and much revelry, particularly in taverns. Then along came Abraham Lincoln, born on the 12th of the month. The year after his assassination, the first formal observance took place in 1865, but even though there were several attempts by Congress to commemorate this great man with his own national holiday, none have succeeded. Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday like Washington’s, just a legal holiday.
In 1968 the observance of Washington’s birthday was shifted to the third Monday in February each year, whether or not it fell on the 22nd. This act was designed to simplify the yearly calendar of holidays and give federal employees a three-day weekend in the process. Along the way, the name of the holiday was simplified to “Presidents’ Day,” giving retailers a three-day reason to have sales, to advertise more heavily, and to celebrate the ring of the register more than the worth of the men who made this country great. And somewhere along the line, Joey Romanello put his head atop Washington’s body and another tradition was born.
So, shall we have a birthday celebration for the father of our country? Perhaps some cake and ice cream served alongside a healthy dose of respect for the man who abolished slavery? Uh-uh. The balloons have long been deflated along with the sorry deflation of respect for all our presidents from Washington, to even Trump.
The party’s over.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 17 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at email@example.com or 401-539-7762.