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Posted at 6:51 PM ET, 02/20/2011

Is Presidents' Day too commercialized?

By Alexandra Petri

It used to be that this was a special holiday -- a day for celebrating our special bond with our presidents, preferably by surprising them with chocolate, a birth certificate or something thoughtful like an impeachment. "Chocolates come and go," we would explain, "but an impeachment is something you always have."

Now, it's just a day when the presidents are dragooned into selling us mattresses, furniture and cars. I don't understand who initially made the connection between Abe Lincoln and Serta -- "Does the Emancipation Proclamation help you sleep better at night? So will the Serta mattress!" -- but I think it needs to be severed. Somehow, he's proceeded from the Lincoln bedroom to everyone's bedroom. "Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself could not stand," I observe, dragging home a credenza. "And nothing divides a house more than a clashing living-room set!" (Really, what would George Washington say this weekend? "I cannot tell a lie. So I will not describe the condition of this car in great detail!")

So instead of stampeding to the mall to make impulse buys on vague association, let's take this day to remember the presidents. What a strange lot they've been. If they all showed up at a party, it would be impossible to guess the theme: Beards? Non-beards? People who enjoy shaking hands? People who can't stand it?

This weekend focuses on Lincoln and Washington, two who are included by default in every presidential greatest-hits collection. Washington and Lincoln were both so famously honest that they would run screaming from the room if anyone asked if they looked fat in this dress. When Washington played Two Truths and a Lie, he just told three truths. (This always bugged Jefferson, who would tell three lies to compensate.) Lincoln was noteworthy for his sense of humor -- "I can make more generals, but horses cost money" -- Washington less so, although his speech about the evils of political parties was pretty hilarious in retrospect.

But while not all of our presidents are so memorable -- the only thing that anyone knows about Rutherford B. Hayes and Millard Fillmore is that nobody knows anything about Rutherford B. Hayes or Millard Fillmore -- they all deserve credit. Adlai Stevenson (always a bridesmaid, never a president) quipped, "In America any boy may become president and I suppose it's just one of the risks he takes."

I'm glad they took the risk. So I wish they'd stop trying to sell me used cars. That's not what today is about.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 20, 2011; 6:51 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  America, Presidents Day, holidays  
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Unfortunately, Congress changed "George Washington's Birthday" to "Presidents Day" at the request of campaign contributors... I mean, advertising agencies. Then, some states mucked it up by voting to honor their favorite presidents on the same day.

There's no hope for stopping the "sale" madness. The only honest thing to do is call it "Advertising Day."

It sounds like a good idea to use Presidents Day to teach people about former presidents, but this won't work either. For example, while touring the Civil War battlefield at Antietam, among the many monuments to the dead, I came across a very large monument honoring former President, William McKinley. The inscription on the monument states that the 19-year-old McKinley, "served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment." This would make a great advertisement for Maxwell House!

Posted by: divtune | February 20, 2011 8:10 PM | Report abuse

President's Day is a holiday too many. Why should we celebrate people that held power? Many of them mediocrities best forgotten, or even malicious?

They had a privilege few of us ever had. Great power.

A better idea would be People's Day, when they celebrate us, since without us, they would not exist.

Posted by: samsara15 | February 20, 2011 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, the first post is incorrect. According to the Office of Personnel Management list of Federal holidays, today's holiday is Washington's Birthday. It is not Presidents' Day.

Posted by: cincyred24 | February 21, 2011 8:57 AM | Report abuse

The National Portrait Gallery has a few photographic images of Millard Fillmore. He was known as quite the dapper gent in his day.

Posted by: morattico | February 21, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse


Thank you for pointing out that the official name is still GW's Birthday. I stand incorrected. Here's the gospel truth (from Wikipedia, of course):

"An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday to 'Presidents Day' to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, which would explain why the chosen date falls between the two, but this proposal failed in committee and the bill as voted on and signed into law on 28 June 1968, kept the name Washington's Birthday."

Now let's all forget about presidents and get on to more important things. I have to get to the underwear sale at Sears!

Posted by: divtune | February 21, 2011 5:29 PM | Report abuse

For me, President's Day is all about the romance - the flowers, the chocolate, and the candlelight dinners.

Posted by: jimward21 | February 21, 2011 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Now that we know that George sells more cars than Abe, more research is needed. How about Teddy? Bully! Or Reagan? "Mr.
Toyota, tear down that back seat". You could probably splice in some newsreel footage. How long after a passing does he belong to the ages (and the ad men)?

Posted by: jimward21 | February 21, 2011 8:02 PM | Report abuse

This website printapons is too cool. I use promo codes alot and hate having to look all over the place for them.

Posted by: patsygwhite | February 22, 2011 5:44 AM | Report abuse

President's Day wasn't always about "Presidents." It started as a day honoring George Washington's birthday (February 22.) Then Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided a long weekend was more important than any sense of history and turned it into a floating holiday falling sometime between Washington's birthday and Lincoln's (February 12.) Then, of course, commerce took over and further butchered the national identity, turning the father of his country into a mattress-hawking-spokesman.

Posted by: AnonymousEric | February 22, 2011 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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