This is the first year that the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. will be marked as a federal holiday, to be observed next Monday.

His actual birth anniversary is tomorrow, Jan. 15, but, while it is widely recognized, the formal observance will be on Monday, Jan. 20. It will give government employes a three-day weekend holiday -- the 10th holiday beyond the quadrennial Inauguration Day granted only to those in the Washington area. A few years back the lawmakers downgraded George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, combining their birthdays into a Presidents Day recognized on, generally, neither of their birth dates.

A federal holiday such as King's birthday, according to research by my colleague Barry Sussman, is far from being a national -- as distinct from federal -- holiday.

A federal holiday declared by Congress applies only to federal employes and territories and generally to such institutions as federally chartered banks. Even the District of Columbia, long considered in pre-home-rule days to be a federal territory, has differed with the feds in recent years in declaring King's actual birthday a city holiday, but the newly declared federal holiday does apply to the District.

Otherwise, the states control holidays, which may nor may not parallel federal obserances. Up to now, Sussman reported, at least half the 50 states have rejected or ignored making King's birthday a holiday.

Virginia, either with genius or disingenuously, has combined the King holiday with a longtime observance of Lee-Jackson Day, named for two heroes of the Confederacy.

On the state level, Massachusetts didn't decide to recognize Jan. 1 as a holiday for New Year's Day until 1918. Conversely, it took until 1968 for Congress to decide that the arrival of Columbus in 1492 deserved national recognition. And to this day, Columbus Day and Memorial Day, while federal holidays, aren't observed in several states.

An epilogue: Three years from this week should be a great one for those still on the payroll in 1989 after the potential ravages of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill. Jan. 16, a Monday, would be recognized as King's birthday and Jan. 20, the Friday of that week, as the presidential inauguration. That means a three-day work week, Tuesday through Thursday.