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Moving Washington's Birthday

[ Posted Monday, February 17th, 2014 – 17:25 PST ]

Happy Presidents' Day to all!

Well, to all who live in Hawai'i, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont, at the very least. These are the states which officially recognize today as "Presidents' Day." Unlike other federal holidays, however, there is much disagreement and controversy surrounding the holiday. Not so much the holiday itself, but over what to call it (and when to celebrate it). In states such as California and Alaska (and, notably, the state of Washington), the apostrophe moves and it is known as "President's Day." This can be read as either snubbing all the other presidents (since the holiday originally celebrated one president's birthday), or celebrating the presidency itself (or the day of the president, to put it another way). But even without such grammatical gymnastics, the day has plenty of other official titles. Some states such as Michigan and New Jersey dispense with the apostrophe altogether and just call it "Presidents Day." Some states get flowery ("Recognition of the birthday of George Washington" in North Dakota), and some get inclusive ("Lincoln's and Washington's Birthday" in Montana, "Lincoln/Washington/Presidents' Day" in Arizona, and "Washington and Lincoln Day" in Utah), and some even throw in a local personage to the mix ("George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day" in Arkansas). Wikipedia lists ten separate official state titles for the holiday, in fact.

There are even -- apostrophes aside -- multiple disagreements over what used to just be George Washington's Birthday. Some object to adding Lincoln in, because they want two separate holidays in February (Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday), just like they celebrated when they were schoolchildren. Some object to the term "Presidents' Day" itself, pointing out that Congress never actually officially adopted that name -- they merely moved Washington's Birthday to always fall on a Monday (which started happening in 1971), so everyone would always have a three-day weekend. Some object to the date it is celebrated on, noting that because of the Monday chosen in 1971 (the "third Monday in February"), the only available range of dates (Feb. 15 - Feb. 21) guarantees that the Washington's Birthday holiday can never actually fall on Washington's birthday.

But we're going to ignore all of these debates today and concentrate instead on an even stranger story about moving Washington's birthday. Because even all the folks who vehemently argue that Washington's real, actual birthday is what should be celebrated and the holiday marking the occasion should be moved back to February 22 in his honor are wrong. This is because George Washington was not born on Washington's birthday.

Yes, you read that right. Washington was not born on his own birthday -- the day that Americans have celebrated ever since he was our first president.

George Washington was born in 1731. If there had been a calendar on the wall in the room where his mother gave birth, it would have shown that George Washington entered life on February 11. That's right -- eleven days earlier than "Washington's Birthday."

There's a reason for this, and a reason why it was later moved. The reason was a centuries-old squabble between the Catholic Church and the rest of the Western world. Pope Gregory XIII declared, in 1582, that the old calendar (named the "Julian" calendar, for Julius Caesar) was so out of whack that it needed serious adjustments. The problem was caused by when leap years occurred on the calendar, and the fact that the Earth does not take precisely 365.25 days to orbit the sun. Gregory's new calendar (which became known as the "Gregorian" calendar) instituted two new rules for leap years -- one of which caused an incredibly rare event in our lifetimes, even though it was little noted at the time. Instead of just "every four years" being the leap year rule, the new rule was "every four years, except in years divisible by 100, except that when the year is also divisible by 400 then the leap day is added back in." Got that? To put it another way, the year 1900 had no leap day, but 2000 did -- an event which only takes place every 400 years. The new Gregorian calendar isn't perfectly aligned with the Earth's movement (the new calendar works out to an average year of 365.2425 days), but it is a lot more accurate than the Julian calendar.

All fine and good. But the problem was that the new calendar made a correction which made several days "disappear." This problem got worse over the centuries, which mattered because not every European country adopted the new Gregorian calendar right away. All the Catholic countries adopted it early on, but Protestant countries took their sweet time about making the shift. When George Washington was born, in 1731, England still hadn't changed their calendar. Imagine what traveling around in Europe was like when crossing a country's border meant changing what day it was -- for centuries on end! Greece was the final holdout and didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923.

But eventually England accepted the new reality, and in 1752 they officially adopted the Gregorian calendar (only 170 years late). What happened as a direct result, on a practical level, was that eleven days disappeared. In all of Britain (including the American colonies), Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752. Of course, this led to no small degree of confusion.

One aspect of this confusion was when people were born -- should they keep their "old style" birthday, as they had been doing all their lives, or should they readjust their birthday to what it would have been on the "new style" calendar, as the law said they should do?

George Washington chose to move his birthday. So he added eleven days, and came up with February 22. Which is the date that everyone in American has celebrated ever since he became our first president. But it wasn't the actual date that his mother gave birth.

For all the purists who even today argue that Washington's Birthday should really be moved back to Washington's actual birthday (and they are, indeed, out there), this introduces a new level of complexity. If we had been celebrating Washington's Birthday all along on February 11, it would have made consolidating his birthday with Abraham Lincoln's a lot easier to do, since they are only one day apart.

We're going to leave those arguments to others, however. It is nothing more than an interesting bit of trivia that Washington wasn't actually born on Washington's Birthday, a story you can tell people who are trying to make one argument or another about what sacrilege it is to move Washington's Birthday on the federal holiday calendar. It certainly doesn't matter for the traditional Presidents' Day events (held down at your local mattress dealer and used car lot), after all.

So we end as we began -- wishing everyone a happy holiday today, no matter what you call it, no matter where (or whether) you put an apostrophe in it, and no matter whose birthday you hold dear in your heart on this day of days. If you got a day off from work today, then bully for you (as another notable president might have said), and if not then hopefully this column has helped you kill ten minutes of time waiting for the end of your working day.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go see a man about a new mattress.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

26 Comments on “Moving Washington's Birthday”

  1. [1] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Chris,

    Interesting post, but you are confusing "dates" with "numbers" when it comes to Washington's birthday. February 11, 1731 of the Julian calendar IS February 22, 1731 of the Gregorian calendar. The date wasn't "moved," it was TRANSLATED, from the Julian calendar's notation to the Gregorian calendar's notation. There aren't separate Gregorian calendars for each country depending on when they adopted the Gregorian calendar, there's just one Gregorian calendar and dates can be expressed using either it or the Julian calendar. February 11 on our Gregorian calendar would NOT be the same date as Washington's February 11 birthday on his Julian calendar. We celebrate the DATE, not the NUMBER. If anyone using the JULIAN calendar celebrated on February 22 THEN they'd have the wrong date.

    Its like binary vs decimal. Just because different combinations of the same symbols (numbers) are used doesn't mean there's a difference in the values (dates) being expressed. Different combinations of numerical symbols can be equivalent in value depending on the notation used to express those values.

    We're not celebrating the literal DAY of Washington's birth, there is only one DAY that's February 11, 1731 (J) and February 22, 1731 (G). And we're not celebrating a number, either 11 or 22. We're symbolically recognizing the DAY of Washington's birth by annually honoring similar DATES, which is February 11 (J) AND February 22 (G).

    If there's really some academics out there still arguing this I'm glad I could clear it up for them!

  2. [2] 
    strangelet wrote:

    I remember trying to get my friends excited about the once-in-four-hundred-years leap day in 2000.

    They pretty much thought I was weird, but I was used to that.

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    I'm with LewDan on this one.

    Every day has multiple dates associated with it: the day known as February 18, 2014 of the Gregorian calendar is not only February 5, 2014 of the Julian calendar, but also Adar I 18, 5774 of the Hebrew calendar; Rabi`ath-Thani 17, 1435 of the Islamic calendar; Bahman 29, 1392 of the Persian calendar; and many more.

    (Note that in some calendars, days are reckoned from local midnight to local midnight; in others they're reckoned from local sunset to local sunset; and in yet others they're reckoned from midnight to midnight in Greenwich. So different calendars don't always name the same set of days.)

    If you want to celebrate Washington's actual birthday, it's the day containing the instant that's a whole number of calendar years from the actual moment he was born -- no matter what calendar you're using. The ability to say that it's "February 22" without specifying which calendar is just a fluke of the fact that two of the calendars use the same names for the months.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    All politics aside...

    The history lessons here in Weigantia are ALWAYS fascinating! :D

    Michale

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Good comments all!

    What separates a major holiday from a minor one is elaborate, fantastical children's mythology that ties into merchandizing!

    Every Feb.22 (Julian) at midnight, George Washington and his Revolutionary Elves emerge from the Little Red Light House under the George Washington Bridge and row across the Hudson to Jersey. They meet up with Abe Lincoln who arrives on a Phantom Steam Train and fly to all 50 states and US Territories delivering gifts, which are put under something. Maybe a flag.

    Parents make a big deal about disabling home security motion detectors so George, Abe and Elves can get in the house without tripping the siren. The National Park service runs a "secure web site" where kids and their parents can "E-mail" their keyless entry codes so George and Abe can get in the house without busting a window.

    The many Georges and Abes that you see at the mall are just "Helpers."

    Kids don't send letters to George and Abe. NSA already knows if they are bad or good. Google knows what they like.

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    TS,

    Every Feb.22 (Julian) at midnight, George Washington and his Revolutionary Elves emerge from the Little Red Light House under the George Washington Bridge and row across the Hudson to Jersey. They meet up with Abe Lincoln who arrives on a Phantom Steam Train and fly to all 50 states and US Territories delivering gifts, which are put under something. Maybe a flag.

    Parents make a big deal about disabling home security motion detectors so George, Abe and Elves can get in the house without tripping the siren. The National Park service runs a "secure web site" where kids and their parents can "E-mail" their keyless entry codes so George and Abe can get in the house without busting a window.

    Now THAT was funny!! :D

    NSA already knows if they are bad or good. Google knows what they like.

    And THAT is scary... Because it's true...

    Michale

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    And THAT is scary... Because it's true...

    Every good myth needs a hard kernel of truth.

  8. [8] 
    andygaus wrote:

    325 days in the year? Are you sure you didn't lose about 40 days somewhere yourself, Chris?

  9. [9] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Another angle on this calendar-dancing was the decision to join Abe's & George's "Holidays" into one.
    I'm old enough to remember that event happening, but not what was the "reasoning" behind it. I've always figured it was a Capitalistic one -- people (workers) used to get the two birthdays off as holidays, but this bothered business/factory owners who grumbled & begrudged having TWO paid days off within a few weeks. George's won out because, especially in D.C., it had become famous for outrageous bargains in stores in D.C. -- TV's for $5, for example. America! America! God shed his grace . . .

  10. [10] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Hawk,

    If memory serves, the impetus behind the renewed push for Presidents day was the drive to establish Martin Luther King Day in 1969. There was already opinion that there were an awful lot of holidays around that time, in addition Lincoln's Birthday still wasn't federal, for obvious reasons it promoted the same kind of resistance MLK Day did. Presidents Day was an attempt to both officially honor Lincoln and reduce the number of holidays. Because the language honoring Lincoln failed in Congress "Presidents" Day became officially "President's" Day in honor of Washington alone.

  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    Every good myth needs a hard kernel of truth.

    "Myth?? Ray, has it ever occurred to you that the reason we've been so busy is because the dead HAVE been rising from the grave??"
    -Winston Zedemore, GHOSTBUSTERS

    :D

    Michale

  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    andygaus -

    First, welcome to the site!

    Your first comment was held for moderation, but from now on you will be able to post instantly. Just don't post more than one link per comment (multilink comments are automatically held for moderation to cut down on comment spam).

    Secondly, whoops!

    You are right, and it has been fixed. I'm surprised nobody else caught this, either here or on HuffPost...

    Mea culpa, the forty days have now been restored.

    :-)

    -CW

  13. [13] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LewDan [1] -

    You're right, it's the difference between "what day was he born on" and "what date was he born on."

    But it's still fun to point out to people who don't know. So there.

    Heh.

    strangelet [2] -

    Aha! Someone else noticed! Yeah, I got mostly yawns when trying to explain this, too. My grandfather actually pointed this out to me long before the event happened, when I was a kid...

    dsws [3] -

    Phbbbtttt! [sound of Bronx cheer] To you and LewDan. Spoilsports!

    What would it be in the French Revolutionary calendar? 4 Ventôse, Year CCXXII?

    Heh.

    OK, calendar know-it-alls, when the Julian calendar was first originated, it started the year in March. We all perpetuate the inaccuracy of changing it to January, for four months out of the year. So what should we do about that?

    [hint for those baffled by that statement: what are the Latin roots of SEPTember, OCTober, NOVEMber, and DECember -- the evidence is right there in front of your eyes...]

    Here's another novel defense of the article: ever met anyone born on Feb. 29? Some are quite adamant that their birthday only appears once every four years. So are they wrong, or right? Birthdays are a personal thing...

    TheStig [5] -

    You forgot the part where bad little boys and girls get nothing but switches (cut from a cherry tree with a hatchet, of course)...

    Heh.

    HawkOwl -

    Didn't delve deeply enough to answer why they were combined, but purists insist that they weren't. Abe's birthday was never officially a federal holiday, whereas George's was. Many states celebrated both, but the bill that Congress passed for 1971 moved many federal holidays to Monday (guaranteeing a three-day weekend). One interesting footnote is that Veteran's Day was likewise moved, but then moved back a few years later, by purists who insisted on the symbology of the original Armistice Day (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th months...).

    Thanks to all for commenting. I love fun stuff like this... maybe I'll write about how Jesus was born 4 years "before Christ" (ie., 4 BC) for Christmas this year...

    :-)

    -CW

  14. [14] 
    dsws wrote:

    I've never met anyone born on leap day. (Nor have I met anyone who was mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate until his twenty-first birthday.) If one of my sons had been born on 2/29, I think I would have said that they get an actual birthday only once every four years, and celebrated their substitute-birthday on March 1 the other years.

    OK, calendar know-it-alls, when the Julian calendar was first originated, it started the year in March. We all perpetuate the inaccuracy of changing it to January, for four months out of the year. So what should we do about that?

    Four? Not just January and February?

    I had assumed that the discrepancy, with 7ber - 10ber being months 9 - 12, came from adding in the months named after Julius and Augustus. But no, they were re-named. And as you say, the year began with March.

  15. [15] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Chris,

    Sorry. March was the first Month of the Roman calendar. It was the Julian calendar in which it became the third month.

  16. [16] 
    dsws wrote:

    The Julian calendar was a Roman calendar, at least initially. According to Wikipedia, "A surviving calendar from the late Republic proves the calendar year started in January before the Julian reform." (But with no actual source cited for the specific fact, and the references are all books not linked in electronic form)

  17. [17] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Leap Day babies, of course, when they're younger, want a present and don't care if it's on 2/28 or 3/1. But as they get older, "9" starts to sound a lot better to some folks than "38." I'm just sayin'...

    The year began in March, because it makes more sense. Spring, rebirth, etc. -- pretty easy parallel to draw. Most previous calendars, all the way back to the first (the Egyptians who figured out when the Nile Valley would flood each spring) actually started in the Spring, often on the equinox.

    I was doing this from memory, and had somehow remembered that The Church had something to do with moving it back to Jan, due to their enshrining the Winter solstice as Xmas. But perhaps I'm wrong, from what LewDan says this happened earlier. Mea culpa, as the Romans would have said. Or Mother Church, for that matter. Heh.

    Julius and Augustus are certainly the gutsiest renamers of all time (true story: I once knew a guy with the first name Leo and whose middle name was Augustus -- and it was no surprise when he told me when his birthday was)... at least, the only ones who ever actually lived, I should say. We all still "worship" Norse gods each and every week, after all. Tiwe's Day, Wodan's Day, Thor's Day, Frigg's Day...

    What I've never understood is why Americans write dates differently than Europeans. Today is 2/19 here in the good ol' USA, but it's 19/2 most everywhere elsewhere.

    Computer programmers are the only ones who get it right and logical: dates should be most-significant digits down to least-significant. This leads to Y/M/D, or today being 2012/02/19. Why? Makes sorting by date a breeze, programmatically.

    :-)

    The coolest calendar trivia I know is from that original Egyptian calendar. Their original estimate gave birth to a whole numeric system that we still use today, in fact (you heard it referenced recently in Olympics coverage, I'll bet). The Egyptians blew it by 5-and-a-fraction days (they later added in 5 "off-calendar" feast days when they realized their mistake).

    That's right -- the degrees in a circle came from the first (wrong) calendar, because it had 360 days. This was a handy number, since it works for so many base numbers: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12. One degree in a circle was originally the equivalent of the distance the Earth moved around the sun in a day, in essence (Egyptians did successfully measure the circumference of the Earth, but they didn't know the Earth's orbit was an ellipse and not a circle, but I digress...).

    Anyway, think about that while watching snowboarders talk about their "720s" and the like...

    :-)

    -CW

  18. [18] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Dang, Re 5, I should have said Gregorian, not Julian...stupid, stupid, stupid!

  19. [19] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    TheStig -

    That's OK, I think I should've said "Greeks" instead of "Egyptians" in that last comment about measuring the circumference of the Earth, myself...

    :-)

    -CW

  20. [20] 
    dsws wrote:

    I like the format 20 February 2014. It goes least-to-most significant place-value instead of most-to-least, the opposite way from numerals. But people usually want to hear what day it is, not what year it is, and delivering the most-often-sought piece of information first seems reasonable to me. Also, using the name of the month makes it unambiguous even for someone who doesn't know what format you're using.

  21. [21] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW-

    Eratosthenes was director of the Library of Alexandria, so it not unreasonable to call him Egyptian of the Hellenistic period.

    But, his estimate of the Earth's diameter is independent of the number of days in a year. It's based solely on the local elevation of the sun at noon, measured at locations with nearly the same longitude, a known distance apart, assuming a spherical earth and a large distance between sun and Earth (negligible parrallax).

    His prime number sieve is really cool too!

  22. [22] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    I like the 20 Feb 2014 format for writing, myself, purely because it avoids completely the whole "where to put the commas" problem. But for computer programming, 20140220 is the way to go.

    :-)

    TheStig -

    Yeah, see, I remembered that he did the measurement with two dry wells in separate towns in Egypt, that's what threw my memory off.

    I heard this story first in the excellent British series "Connections" and was astounded at the simplicity and genius of the methodology. All you need is two wells, trigonometry, a few willing helpers, and a couple long lengths of rope, and you can measure the circumference of the Earth to within a 10% error, which (scientifically speaking) is close enough. Brilliant!

    You're right, the two have nothing to do with each other, though. Did the Egyptians believe in a heliocentric solar system? I don't remember... guess I should've checked...

    -CW

  23. [23] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    But my main question remains unanswered: why did Europeans use 20/2 and Americans decide on 2/20? Was it a hangover from the Revolution, like why Americans drink more coffee than tea even today? Or what? When did the change happen?

    -CW

  24. [24] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Cw- Connections may well be the best science/tech series ever! I think it must have run during the mid '80s, I'd love to watch it again!

  25. [25] 
    TheStig wrote:

    (22)Did the Egyptians believe in a heliocentric solar system?

    Aristarchus of Samos (c.310-c.230 BC) proposed a sun centered system with known planets in their correct order.

    Eratosthenes (c.276-c.195 BC) headed the Alexandrian Library, which was noted for it's comprehensive collections, so he was almost certainly aware of the theory.

    Ptolemy favored an Earth centered model for computational reasons, and didn't exclude other schemes.

  26. [26] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    TheStig -

    On "Connections" I heartily agree. I tried to get it from Netflix, but only could get a second series that wasn't as good as the original (had the same host, though).

    If I ruled the universe, everyone would have to mandatorally watch the show at about age 10.

    Hmmph.

    The host did write a column for many years for Scientific American, which were like mini-text versions of his show. They're probably collected online...

    :-)

    -CW

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