A low-key holiday

Visitors to the Lowcountry Children's Museum on Monday saw representations of all 44 presidents of the United States. The artwork was done by Charleston-area students.

At what may be the state's pre-eminent presidential historical site, the Heyward-Washington House in downtown Charleston, the holiday passed quietly.

If you had to stop and think "What holiday?" you probably aren't alone.

Monday was Presidents Day, probably one of the least-famous federal holidays (along with Columbus Day). Unless you have kids in grade school, or were expecting something in the mail, you may not have noticed.

At Heyward-Washington, where the Father of Our Country spent a week in 1791, the holiday formerly known as Washington's birthday was barely noticed by tourists.

"Nobody really mentioned it, to be honest," said John Harris, an interpreter at the house.

That's not the fault of historians. There is an amazing amount of interest in the Founding Fathers these days, but it's not translating into recognition of the holiday honoring past presidents. These days, fewer and fewer businesses close in honor of the holiday.

"Once they moved away from it being Washington's birthday, it lost its sense of identity," said David Mann, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "People may have noticed there was a lot less traffic."

The holiday was rebranded in the late 20th century. Congress changed the holiday to the third Monday of February, virtually assuring it would never fall on Washington's birthday (Feb. 22).

The name change, according to David Preston, a history professor at The Citadel, allowed the holiday to also honor Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday falls this month as well (Feb. 12). That way, the holiday honors both the symbol of the Revolution and the president who saved the Union during the Civil War (well, some South Carolinians may feel differently).

"Our Founding Fathers aren't quite as lionized as they once were," Preston said. "Historians in the last 30 or 40 years have done a lot to knock the founders off their pedestals."

At a time when more people are debating what the founders intended for this country, fewer people actually know history. U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was so horrified by a poll of school kids that showed many couldn't identify George Washington that he passed the Teaching American History grant in 2002 to improve the teaching of traditional American history in public schools.

The Citadel has worked with Berkeley County schools on this for three years now, and several schools across the state participate in the program.

Maybe there's hope for Presidents Day yet.