Washington’s birthday vs. President’s Day Holiday


We are coming up on President’s Day Holiday – it is interesting to note that no American president (including the Presidents of the Confederacy and the Continental and Confederation Congresses) has ever been born on any of the days in February when the holiday falls.

But the Monday holiday, as enacted in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, started as Washington’s Birthday Holiday, and is still designated as such by the federal government.

Yet the holiday never falls on George Washington’s birthday.

We all learned that George Washington was born on Feb. 22, 1732.

But George himself never recognized that as his birthday — he always observed it on Feb. 11.

And, if you were to find a birth record for George, it would be dated Feb. 11, 1731 because that was the official date for the day he was born.

So, we could surmise that the holiday essentially splits the difference between the two birthdays for George Washington, and so can be viewed as appropriately honoring him. But, that is not how it happened.

First, how did George Washington end up with two birth dates? The British empire at the time of George’s birth was using the Julian calendar (named for Julius Caesar who adopted it for the Roman empire beginning 45 BCE), the calendar still in use in the Orthodox churches.

The Julian calendar introduced the leap year to account for the quarter day difference between 365 days and the length of a year.

However, rather than start the year on Jan. 1 as Julius Caesar intended, the British followed the former Catholic church practice of starting the year at the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, so January, February and most of March were officially part of the preceding year.

By the way, this caused some confusion, even at that time, especially for dates in early March, so dates on contemporary records are often inconsistent. In 1752, the British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII), which is essentially our current calendar system.

This calendar system was introduced in the Catholic church in 1582 and adopted by the countries of southern Europe almost immediately, but the religious divide caused by Protestant reformation of the early 1500s meant that northern Europe continued to follow the old calendar for a long time after that.

The Gregorian calendar corrects the Julian calendar by § of a day per century.

The correction was first suggested around 800 AD by the Venerable Bede, an English monk, but was not adopted until Aloysius Lilius, an Italian doctor and astronomer, rediscovered the error 750 years later and his brother brought it to the attention of the Pope.

The difference in dates has increased with time – there is presently a 13 day difference between the Julian date and the Gregorian date, which is why Orthodox Christmas (Julian Dec. 25) occurs on Jan. 7 on the common (Gregorian) calendar.

In the 1700s, the difference was 11 days, so George Washington’s birth on Feb. 11 on the Julian calendar was the same as Feb. 22 on the Gregorian calendar.

In case you were wondering how the change happened, the British Empire went directly from Wednesday Sept. 2 to Thursday, Sept. 14 in 1752, skipping 11 dates to catch up with the numbering of the Gregorian calendar.

That was also when the beginning of the year was changed officially to Jan. 1.

Despite the change, George, like most of his contemporaries, continued to observe his birthday on the date he grew up with – Feb. 11.

It was only after his death that the country began observing his birthday on February 22nd. Washington’s birthday became an official national holiday in the late 1800s.

When creating the Monday holiday, the third Monday of February was selected because many in Congress wanted the day to honor Abraham Lincoln, as well as George Washington.

So the Monday between their birthdays was selected — probably not realizing that it was also the Monday between Washington’s two birthdays.

Objections to the inclusion of Lincoln by southern congressional delegations, however, meant that the holiday remained labelled as Washington’s Birthday Holiday.

The gradual change in the common designation of the holiday to President’s Day reflects the general consensus that we should be honoring multiple presidents, not just George Washington.

But for those of us named Washington, it will always be Washington’s Birthday Holiday.

Paul Washington is a resident of Salona.