They say that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and this may be true, unless you are talking about Presidents Day and other government holidays where no possession is 100% of the law. Let me explain.
When the words “Presidents Day” are spoken aloud there are two ways one might understand them. Either the day belongs to the Presidents, in this case George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or the word “Presidents” is an adjective that describes the day. When our government declared Presidents Day a national holiday, they chose the adjective version as the appropriate spelling of the name.
I will concede that you can’t possess something after you are dead, and nobody gets a holiday named after them while they are still alive. Still, to use a name as an adjective seems even more absurd than to quibble over the possession rights of the deceased. How can a person’s name describe a day? Sunny day, rainy day, and Independence Day, all of these make senses as descriptors. But, no matter how you argue it, “Presidents” just can’t describe a day. Presidents day is a day to reflect on two of our nation’s great leaders. No matter how you word it, it simply makes more sense to say that Washington and Lincoln own that day.
It would seem, however, that our government usually names their federal holidays using the adjective system. In Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, and Veterans Day the names all become adjectives and therefor describe the day rather than possess it. (on a side note, the argument about the deceased ceases to be a factor when it comes to Veterans Day. To use the word as an adjective rather than a possessive is ludicrous, because there are many veterans who are still around to claim it.)
Then there is Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day as you have undoubtedly noticed, has an apostrophe. It is a day possessed by St. Valentine, who was said to have carried out illegal weddings for Christians in Rome. He is very much deceased and yet he gets an apostrophe. Likewise, New Year’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and April Fools’ Day all have apostrophes. These days all belong to their namesakes, as all holidays should. So what is the difference? These holidays have their foundations in either religious or social celebrations, and were not originally sanctioned by the government.
It seems that social and religious holidays generally have possessive names, while government holidays get descriptive names. There are of course a few exceptions. The government technically declared Mother’s Day but they don’t have anything to do with its implementation. Groundhog Day is a social event not a government one, but it still has a descriptive name. However, the majority of these holidays fit the pattern.
The use of the adjective rather than the possessive form of the word sterilizes the name. It somehow lessens the impact of the words, which is one of our government’s favorite tricks. Even when it doesn’t make sense they will play semantic games with the people. They probably just can’t help themselves. When real people name something they inherently name it to own it. They want future generations to know who did that, and what they were about. When your government names something they distance themselves to soften the blow in case it explodes in its face. It’s all in the words.