WASHINGTON – The Washington Monument is closed. The current president just escaped removal from office. And when the Carroll County school system voted to drop the Presidents Day holiday from next year’s calendar, nobody raised an eyebrow.
The federal holiday honoring Washington and Lincoln just ain’t what it used to be.
“This holiday gets virtually swept aside,” said Michigan State University professor Gary Hoppenstand. “There are no cards for Presidents Day, no gifts for Presidents Day, there’s no commercial hook, because there’s simply no interest.
“People just aren’t crossing the country to visit each other on Presidents Day, because there’s no emotional tag associated with it,” said Hoppenstand, a professor of American thought and language.
That does not mean the holiday goes entirely unnoticed.
Officials at Mount Vernon said they typically see 15,000 visitors come through George Washington’s historic Virginia estate on the third Monday in February — the only day admission is free.
The National Park Service said it draws about 1,000 people to an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial on Feb. 12, the 16th president’s birthday.
The actual birthdays — Washington’s is Feb. 22 — often have more meaning to the devotees of the two great men than the generic federal holiday that officially honors them.
Jack Sangino, a popular culture professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said that “the move from an individual celebration to an all-inclusive, catch-all Monday holiday” has diminished its significance.
Removing the holiday from the presidents’ actual birthdays and incorporating it into a three-day weekend made it “a little more generic, more diluted,” he said.
It is now unclear to Americans whether the day is dedicated to Washington, Washington and Lincoln, all presidents or the office of the presidency in general, Sangino said.
Suzanne Kelley, site manager of Ford’s Theater, said more visitors will come on Monday to the theater where Lincoln was assassinated simply because more of them will be off work. But she said the day has little other significance for theater staffers, who still recognize Feb. 12 as Lincoln’s birthday.
Kelley, who has to work Monday, said she had forgotten that it was the official celebration of Presidents Day until someone with the day off reminded her.
Ferald Bryan, professor of communications studies at Northern Illinois University, believes that Americans still celebrate Presidents Day, but he admitted his view may be skewed by the fact that he lives in Lincoln’s home state.
He noted that Illinois schoolchildren had Friday off for Lincoln’s birthday, as well as the federal holiday Monday.
While he endorsed that time off, Bryan said he also understands the current debate about whether giving children a holiday is the best way to honor the two men.
Carroll County school officials think not.
The county school board voted Wednesday to drop Presidents Day — and Martin Luther King Jr. Day — from next year’s list of school holidays, expressing concerns that the holidays have become diminished over the years.
“They don’t feel as if students sitting at home actually do anything to commemorate the holiday,” said Carroll County schools spokeswoman Carey Gaddis.
“They would prefer to have the students in school where they stand a greater chance of receiving meaningful instruction,” Gaddis said.
But while the action on King Day has caused an uproar, Gaddis said the school system has not received a single complaint about dropping Presidents Day.
Hoppenstand said Presidents Day is “just one casualty” of American contempt for politics.
“It has been diminished, not so much by commercialism, but more because of mounting public cynicism toward politics and politicians over the past 20, 25, even 30 years,” he explained.
But supporters are not giving up the fight.
“There’s a move afoot by alumni and students to elevate George Washington’s birthday,” said Barbara Porter, spokeswoman for George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“We’re doing `George Awareness’ this year,” the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death, she said.
The yearlong George Awareness events start Feb. 22, with period music, readings, food and other events as part of a campuswide birthday party.