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Moving Washington's Birthday

02/17/2014 07:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014

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 that 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 10 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 -- 11 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 blogs at:

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