Details of the lives of two of America's greatest presidents - George Washington and Abraham Lincoln - have tended to disappear from public celebrations since the holidays honoring their birthdays have been merged into a single event known as Presidents' Day.

Presidents' Day will occur Monday, Feb. 18, although that is not the birthday of either Washington or Lincoln. Most of the so-called celebration will amount to Presidents' Day sales by stores and a three-day weekend for many workers because of the holiday.There will be precious little honoring, as such, of Washington or Lincoln for their enormous and admirable roles as pivotal figures in U.S. history. One is known as the "father of his country," the other as the one who "saved the Union." Both titles are deserved.

Actually, Lincoln's birthday was Feb. 12 and Washington's Feb. 22. Back in 1968, Congress moved Washington's birthday observance - a federal holiday - to the third Monday in February to create a long weekend. Lincoln's birthday - never a federal holiday, only a state event and not in every state, either - gradually became part of the Washington's birthday observance, with the combined event popularly known as Presidents' Day.

This has been a matter of custom rather than law in most places, although in 1986, the Utah Legislature designated the third Monday in February for observance of both Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, "also known as Presidents' Day."

In some respects, the holiday also is seen as a kind of generic recognition of all past presidents, although that was never the intention. This has further eroded the honoring of Washington and Lincoln as heroes.

The failure to more specifically honor these great men for their individual achievements is a loss to all Americans. Washington and Lincoln were more than great political figures who performed outstanding service in times of fundamental crisis. Their stature and reverence in the minds of their countrymen - at least in previous generations - also has been due to recognition of their personal character, their towering honesty, integrity, compassion and humanity.

Their memories deserve more from present-day Americans than simply a generic holiday and a rash of "presidential" sales. Utahns should give special time and thought toward better understanding of two of the nation's finest heroes.