The dates are pretty much lost on us now. Whose birthday is it, anyway, come Presidents’ Day: Washington’s or Lincoln’s, the tradition’s two biggest names? Or what about Adams or Jefferson or Madison? Or, less selectively, Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore, or, for that matter, Donald Trump or Barack Obama? None of these figures or any other of our presidents, it turns out, was born on February 21.

Since 1968, America has had a law muddying these waters. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted in June of that year and effective January 1, 1971, made regular three-day weekends out of Washington’s Birthday (really February 22), Memorial Day, and Labor Day. Federal employees’ unions, as well as the travel industry, had long promoted the cause, whether for more paid time off or for time off that might, one supposes, be more readily enjoyed. This played out across our republic in various iterations. The apostrophe, for instance, was moved around freely. In some states it was President’s Day, in others Presidents’ Day. In Virginia, it was just plain George Washington Day; in Massachusetts and Illinois, it was still Washington’s Birthday; in Alabama, it was Washington/Jefferson Day; in Arkansas, it was Washington/Daisy Bates Day, celebrating a civil-rights leader from the 1950s. Some once-Confederate states remembered a president of their own with Jefferson Davis Day.

That which stands apart from a pattern is often the most visible. Readers my age or older will recall how each February in the 1950s had two days when school was gloriously closed, days not usually butted-up against a weekend: Lincoln’s actual birthday, February 12, and Washington’s ten days later. Our midweek “days off” were more special than a mere “long weekend.” We enjoyed them in part because we were naturally truant, but we did not escape without first being drilled on the solemn reason for our holiday. We were reminded why it was that history had judged Washington and Lincoln the greatest in a great tradition. This was not remotely controversial. 

Given the state of public education today, dates of remembrance are drilled no longer and consensus around whom we are honoring has gone with the wind. If you would like the definitive judgment of popular culture as it used to exist, on what holidays like these meant and how they were marked, you need go no further than the 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire/Irving Berlin film Holiday Inn, in which anybody who was anybody decamped to an inn in Connecticut open only on holidays, for evenings of home cooking, dancing, and a floor show themed to the holiday of the moment. It has been downhill from there.

Unlike the “when,” the “where” of our presidential markers is less easily meddled with. Visitors can still pay reverence at Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, or Hyde Park, and dozens of less-frequented presidential shrines if they are prepared to cut through the “critical” interpretation that nowadays beclouds them. “Reverence” is the correct word here, not because of the saintly quality of the men associated with these addresses but rather because the aura that such places conjure reflect the presidency itself, that office which in our constitution combines into one, for better or worse, head of government and head of state and which is symbolic of American nationhood. The office transcends its occupants and has done so ever since George Washington first assumed it in 1789. Presidents’ birthplaces, unlike their birthday celebrations, are fixed, though not all places that stir remembrance, even awe, of a past chief executive are, as I recently learned, pieces of fixed real estate.

Just up the road from me in the central Shenandoah Valley, on the premises of Dynamic Aviation, Inc., a specialty services aviation company, resides the first aircraft ever to carry the designation “Air Force One.” A customized military version of the elegant high-nose, triple-tail Lockheed Constellation airliner, she (a plane is a kind of ship, so I believe “she” would be the correct pronoun) served as President Eisenhower’s personal plane starting in 1953. She is called Columbine II after the official flower of Colorado, Mamie Eisenhower’s adopted home state. The plane was rescued from an aircraft boneyard in Arizona, made airworthy, and flown to Virginia for a full restoration. Dynamic’s CEO plans to make her fully operational, not a mere museum piece, but a living “gift to the nation.” Through a connection of my wife, I was privileged to get inside. At the moment, the interior is hung with work lights, floorboards are missing, control cables exposed, berths and basins reminiscent of a Pullman car, the cockpit filled with old-time analog gauges and dominated by four great throttles. Witness to the pre-GPS age, a small glass bubble protrudes from atop the fuselage just aft of the cockpit for fixing position by starlight with a sextant. In the president’s quarters, I was directed to, and stood upon, the spot where Ike once sat. And, next to the window, there was the wiring for one black telephone and one red. 

Ike was my second president and the only one I have seen in the flesh, when I was twelve. He was seventy and visiting his mother’s birthplace a mile or so from where I live. He of course had a birthday too, October 14, which is pretty much forgotten along with all the other presidents’. Something has been lost here that we need again to find. Remembering and marking dates, like standing on the spot where something important happened, re-centers us on history’s stubborn facts: exactly here, precisely then. As you enjoy your three-day weekend, be grateful for the fact of the presidency and the nation it represents.

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