Poor George!

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1950’s, school kids especially liked February because it had not one, but TWO, holidays: not only George Washington’s on the 22nd, but also Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th. And they were celebrated on the actual days, not arbitrarily moved for convenience sake. I know that school kids in some states didn’t get the benefit of Abraham’s birthday, but that was their loss. I always enjoyed doing art projects based upon the busts of these two presidents and reading their biographies.

Of course, in later years, I learned that George Washington’s birthdate was actually complicated. When he was was born in Virginia in 1731, the colonies, as well as Britain, were still using the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one — after all no loyal British citizen was going to use a Papist calendar even if it was actually more accurate. According to the Julian calendar, which was 11 days off by the time George was born, his birth date was February 11, 1731, while according to the Gregorian calendar, it was February 22, 1732!

Why was that? Well, the flaw in the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, is based on the assumption that a year, i.e., the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun, is exactly 365.25 days long, when it is actually only 365.2425 days long. So when Caesar created leap days (on Feb. 29) every four years to allow for that .25 day annually, the calendar over time actually inaccurately gained an extra day every fourth leap year so that by the time of Pope Gregory in 1582, the calendar had gained ten days. So Pope Gregory did two things. First, he adjusted for those ten days by decreeing that Thursday 4 October 1582 would be followed by Friday 15 October 1582. Then he made a complicated adjustment of leap years going forward by decreeing that, in future, any year divisible by 100 (although divisible by four) would not be a leap year, unless it was also exactly divisible by 400! So 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 1600 and 2000 were! I doubt that many folks living the year 2000 realized how unusual a date February 29, 2000 was!

Finally, with the passage of the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, Great Britian and its colonies faced reality and moved to the Gregorian calendar (but avoided recognizng “Papist” nature of the calendar by calling it the “New Style” calendar instead of the Gregorian one.) By 1740, however, the Julian calendar was 11 instead of 10 days off, so Wednesday 2nd September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September 1752 (and some folks falsely believed that they had lost 11 days of their lives). So poor George (along with anyone else living in Great Britain or her colonies) had to adjust his birth date. He was now born on Feb. 22 instead of Feb. 11th!

But there was another problem for poor George. Britain had traditionally begun the new year on March 25, the Feast of the Annunication (instead of January 1), so Washington’s birth, occuring in Feburary, was officially recorded in 1731. Another provision of the Calendar Act, however, was starting the new year on January 1 so poor George not only had to adjust his birthday but also his birth year, which now, officially became February 22, 1732 (instead of February 11, 1731)!

But poor George’s birthday has more recently suffered yet another change. In 1971, in its infinite wisdom, the US Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moving most federal holidays, including George Washington’s birthday to a Monday. So now we celebrate poor George’s birthday not on Feb. 22 (or Feb 11) but on the third Monday in February.

And we don’t even call it George Washington’s birthday any more. Poor George now has to share his birthday with others and the day is called, unofficially, President’s Day or Presidents’ Day or even Presidents Day. (That apostrophe wanders or even disappears).

We could even add poor Abraham to this story, because he has lost many of his birthday celebrations as result of “Presidents’ Day” as well. In 1940, his birthday was a holiday in about 40 states as well as the District of Columbia, but since the establishment of Presidents’ Day, most of those states have abandoned the separate celebration of Lincoln’s birthday — only Illinois, California, Connecticut, Missouri and New York still do!

Does this mean that Presidents’ Day honors not only poor George and poor Abraham but all the other 44 presidents as well, even the bad ones? And I wonder how how often George and Abraham are even associated with the holiday in our schools anymore. Do school kids still do artwork, as I once did, based upon the busts of these presidents, and read their biographies or do folks just consider the day another day off or a chance to buy a new matress. Peter Coy of Bloomsberg Businessweek, BTW, agrees with me.

In our house, however, — I cannot tell a lie — we will stubbornly remember George on his real, Gregorian-based, birthday, with the traditional cherry pie!

Enjoy your Presidents’ Day!



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Tom Sienkewicz

Tom Sienkewicz

I taught Classics for 40+ years and am now Capron Professor Emeritus of Classics at Monmouth College in Illinois. Read more about me at www.tomsienkewicz.com.