Washington’s Birthday

Today’s post is an excerpt from an unpublished tween book I wrote on the origin of American holidays a few years back. Other excerpts are available on the Full Essays page of this blog.

Our founding father, a little worse for wear

Today is the earliest of only three government holidays devoted to an individual, specifically George Washington. Also called President’s Day, this holiday comes on the third Monday in February. Washington was born February 11, 1731. In an interesting twist of fate, when the Gregorian calendar was finally accepted in the United States in 1752 Washington found his birthday shifted to February 22. Washington died in 1799, but the idea of national holidays for a single person had not yet been invented. It took almost a century for someone to do something about it. When Washington’s Birthday was first observed in 1880 only the government offices in the District of Columbia (named for Washington, of course) got the day off. Naturally, they celebrated it on February 22. Five years later, in 1885, all federal offices took the day off.

Now, the problem with government holidays is that Post Offices, which are run by the government, are also closed. That means no mail. For businesses that used to mean an interruption of work – believe it or not, before the Internet was invented nearly all business relied on snail mail! It is hard for a business to take a day off in the middle of a week, so in 1971 George Washington’s birthday was moved again so that it would always be on a Monday. Washington, being long dead, said nothing.

When I was a kid I always thought Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12, 1809) was a holiday too. It came before Washington’s birthday, but still in February. Since junk mail hadn’t yet been invented, I didn’t notice whether the mail came or not. Lincoln’s birthday was printed on the calendar, but it has never been an official federal holiday. Now, here’s a funny thing: individual states have the right to set state holidays or even rename federal holidays. Lincoln’s Birthday, for example, is a state holiday in Illinois.

In the 1980s Washington’s Birthday underwent another transformation. Noticing that Lincoln’s Birthday was ten days before Washington’s (remember, on the Julian calendar Washington’s birthday was February 11) businesses could call it President’s Day and stores could offer sales. So, wait, what is this holiday called and when is it? Its official, federal name is Washington’s Birthday. Many people, and some states, call it President’s Day. It is always observed on the third Monday in February. And George Washington would have been just as confused as anybody, because he is the only president with three different birthdays!

A Sigh for Cybele

As we fall out of the holiday season into that distinctly chilly and sometimes cheerless February, Cybele comes to mind. Over the past several weeks I have added posts focused on the holidays associated with December and January. In the course of my research for a children’s book on American holidays (not published), I was astonished at how frequently Cybele appeared among the origins of current holiday practices. Having researched ancient Near Eastern mythology long enough to complete a doctorate in the field, and to write a book on an ancient goddess (Asherah), the lack of reference to Cybele in my sources was unexpected. I pushed this question mark to the back of my mind, but as I was reading H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls,” I found Cybele once again.

Cybele eventually became a major Roman goddess, although she was never among the Greek Olympians. Her importance shows in her connections with several Roman festivals and practices of antiquity, some of which have survived even to the present. Greco-Roman adherents to Cybele worship considered her to have been of Phrygian origin. Many scholars, however, see in her name and character echoes of a Semitic goddess named after Gebal, or the native name for Byblos in Phoenicia. If so, she is one further piece of the puzzle connecting the classical world with that of the fertile crescent.

Wikipedia Commons Cybele

A standard title for Cybele was Magna Mater, or “great mother.” As such, she was frequently associated with the earth itself, widely considered to have been a primordial female deity in the ancient Near East. In many respects she resembles Asherah, although the two are never explicitly identified. In myths where she is associated with Atys (later Attis), she becomes the spouse of a “dying and rising god.” She is prominent in festivals around mid-March, at the time of the renewal of fertility in the Mediterranean basin. Matronly, stolid, and powerful, Cybele lurks in the background of religious sensibilities. Her association with spring offers something to look forward to as the overly long, yet short, month of February starts to become visible.