Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mr. President?

George Washington’s birthday is celebrated as a Federal holiday on the third Monday of February, but this isn’t his actual birthday. In fact, the date of his birthday is not really even the day he was born!

Pope Gregory XIII
When George was born, Britain followed the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar, and the day he was born was February 11, 1731. However, there were longstanding problems with the Julian Calendar. Most notably, it did not follow the solar year precisely enough to keep Easter where it belonged -- after the vernal equinox. Pope Gregory XIII noted that Easter was drifting into the beginning of March - the Julian calendar's 364 ¼ day years were “only” 11 minutes short, but over time these few minutes added up, and the calendar was off a full day every 128 years.   By the late 1500s there was a 10 day discrepancy! Gregory VIII reworked the calendar to keep the years uniform, and it was immediately adopted by Catholic countries. Britain, however, was a Protestant nation, and resisted adopting a calendar created by a Pope. However, as countries around them began to adopt the new Gregorian calendar, Britain realized the benefits of using a calendar common to her neighbors (or at the least, her military enemies). In 1752, Great Britain and her colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, but by then there was an 11 day gap between calendars. Ultimately, between this discrepancy and a change from a March “new year” to January, George’s date of birth moved to February 22, 1732.

In 1885, President Chester Arthur signed a bill making Washington’s birthday an official Federal holiday. However, this meant that while the date did not change, the day of the week that the holiday fell on varied from year to year. Although Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act in 1968, moving the official observance of Washington's birthday to the third Monday in February, the holiday wasn’t moved from February 22 until 1971. Many Americans call this day “Presidents’ Day,” believing it is celebrated in honor of both President Washington and President Lincoln, who was also born in February. However, the Congressional Resolution officially titles the day “Washington’s Birthday.”

For more information on George Washington, check out these other posts in the Luke's American Adventures series:

A Biography of George Washington - Part I
A Biography of George Washington - Part II
A Biography of George Washington - Part III

A Visit to George Washington's Mount Vernon 

George Washington, True Patriot (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

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