It’s Abraham Lincoln’s 204th birthday today, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the number of states that observe the day as a paid holiday.
Currently, the Lincoln holiday is celebrated unofficially nationwide, as part of what many states call Presidents Day, which falls on Monday, February 18 this year. Only four states remain that celebrate the actual Lincoln birthday on its date.
And technically, the federal Presidents Day commemorates George Washington’s observed birthday: There is no national holiday called Presidents Day.
The third Monday in February is the date designated for the federal Washington’s Birthday holiday under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971.
So on February 12, Lincoln’s real birthday, there are a handful of celebrations on a state level, along with a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. There is also a wreath ceremony at Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky.
Lincoln really was born in a one-room log cabin, on Sinking Spring Farm near present-day Hodgenville, Kentucky. (The original cabin was destroyed by the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865.)
There were efforts right after Lincoln’s death to get this birthday recognized as a holiday, but there has never been a federal Lincoln-birthday holiday.
By 1990, Lincoln’s birthday was observed as a paid holiday in 10 states.
According to one blog that tracks the holiday, in 1940 24 states and the District Of Columbia observed Lincoln’s Birthday.
Now, after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed and states moved toward considering the federal Washington-birthday holiday as Presidents Day, there are just a handful of states that honor Lincoln directly.
The states that currently have Lincoln-birthday holidays on February 12 include Illinois (Lincoln’s adopted home state), Connecticut, Missouri, and New York.
In 2009, California decided to end its official paid Lincoln-birthday holiday for state employees. (It also cut Columbus Day.) Indiana also recognizes Lincoln’s birthday but observes it on the day after Thanksgiving. New Jersey has phased out the Lincoln holiday as a cost-cutting measure.
There have been several attempts in Congress to get Lincoln his own national holiday, but none have succeeded.
Now, more states celebrate Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) than Lincoln’s birthday. In fact, 18 states, not including Indiana, have days off for state employees for Black Friday. Another 10 states give their employees the day off for Good Friday, and five states recognize December 26 as a holiday.
Only 10 states include language in their holiday laws that include Lincoln’s birthday as part of what is called Presidents Day or another name for that holiday on the third Monday in February.
And although it may seem odd that Indiana, and also New Mexico, honor Lincoln on the day after Thanksgiving, it was President Lincoln who issued the proclamation in 1863 that officially set the precedent for America's national day of Thanksgiving.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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Editor's Note: At the National Constitution Center, we celebrate Presidents Day, which is the holiday designation in our home state of Pennsylvania. Visit our website here to learn how you can celebrate Presidents Day (or whatever president-related holiday you choose) at the Center, online, and in the classroom!