Holiday lost in punctuation

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

To 9-year-old Bailey it only made sense to ask the all important question on Presidents Day.

"Does the president get the day off?" she asked.

"No. It's a full-time job, seven days a week, 24 hours a day," I told her. "He's always on duty."

That prompted another question. "Does he get to sleep?"

Yes, he gets to sleep, I told her.

Of course, I'm not sure how much sleep the president of the free world gets in a normal week. After all, the president of the United States isn't your typical government bureaucrat.

No doubt, we would all be better off if federal officials, including those in Congress, would sleep on the job a little more. That way we would have to contend with fewer ridiculous laws.

Naturally, Bailey knew that Presidents Day was a holiday because there was no school.

A day off from school is the best kind of holiday, she would say.

But for many Americans, Presidents Day is one of those pseudo-holidays that only government workers, schoolteachers and schoolchildren celebrate. For everyone else, it's just another Monday at the office.

Just getting the holiday spelled right is a major challenge. Some people spell it President's Day, which presumes it only applies to a single president, while others including the Associated Press wire service, don't bother with the apostrophe at all. I guess that's not surprising. Many Americans prefer to avoid punctuation entirely, particularly when they don't get the day off.

At any rate, the federal government still officially refers to the third Monday in February as Washington's birthday.

In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act, which moved the official observance of George Washington's birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February.

Some holiday enthusiasts wanted to change the name of the holiday to Presidents Day to honor both Washington and Lincoln -- another February birthday boy -- but Congress rejected the proposal.

But in 1971, when the law went into effect, President Nixon proclaimed the holiday as Presidents Day to commemorate all past presidents.

It's caught on to the point that stores everywhere have Presidents Day sales, some even without the apostrophe. Consumers and store owners, it appears, don't worry about punctuation when it comes to a good sale.

When I was growing up, schools celebrated Washington's birthday although I don't remember any of my teachers chopping down a cherry tree.

It was an official holiday dating all the way back to 1885 when President Chester Arthur signed a bill to that effect. For that, school children everywhere are eternally grateful.

It's fine to have Presidents Day for government workers.

But it would be great to have a separate holiday for those of us who aren't on the government payroll. We could have the day off while government workers slaved away for us.

Just once it would be nice on a holiday to be able to call a government office and have someone answer the phone.

As taxpayers, we'd all feel we were getting our money's worth. Plus, we'd have more time for those holiday sales.

Mark Bliss is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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