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Today’s post is an excerpt from an unpublished tween book I wrote on the origin of American holidays a few years back.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!