What You Don’t Know About Washington’s Birthday

GeorgeOn Monday we will celebrate the holiday we now call “Presidents’ Day.”  It used to be George Washington’s birthday, which used to be February 22nd but started being moved around so that Federal employees could have another three day week-end.  (GW’s birthday became “Presidents’ Day” because people thought we weren’t paying enough attention to other great Presidents like Warren G. Harding and Millard Fillmore.) Moving George’s birthday around has been a thing to do, it seems, for quite a while.

When George was born, the date was NOT February 22, 1732.  Not in the English colony of Virginia when GW was born and not in Britain or any of her colonies.  The date on the calendar that day was February 11th, 1731.

If you want all of the gory details, you can find them here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar#Difference_between_Gregorian_and_Julian_calendar_dates

But if you want the short version, read on.

People have been trying to figure out what day it is for a long time.  The Romans had a calendar, which they named after Julius Caesar — the “Julian” calendar.  It was okay and worked for a long time except that it miscalculated the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.  The stupid Romans had calculated a year as being 365 days and six hours in length.  They were probably confused by those goofy Roman numerals.  1582 years later, smarter people calculated a year as being 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds.  The Romans were off by 10 minutes and 48 seconds!

That may not seem like a lot of time to you, but if you add it up over 1582 years, it amounts to a considerable amount of time.  It’s about 10 days.  (1582 X 10 = 15820 (minutes) / 60 = 263.67 (hours) / 24 = 10 days and some change.)

Ten days!  Something had to be done!  It was an international crisis.  Luckily for all of us, the Roman Catholic church had some smart people working for them and they convinced Pope Gregory XIII (silly Roman numerals again) to set the record straight.  So the Pope declared the old calendar was wrong and created a new calendar (which he promptly named after himself).  This can get really complicated real fast because it has to do with (among other things) when we celebrate Easter.  Easter has always been connected to the lunar calendar and is supposed to coincide with the vernal (Spring) equinox (when daytime hours and night time hours are about the same — 12 hours).  During Caesar’s time, that day was about March 22nd, but by 1580 it was happening around March 11th.  You don’t need a calculator, you just notice “Hey we had 12 hours of sunshine today” to figure it out.

Okay, so you can understand what the Big Deal was about.  We certainly cannot allow Easter to be on March 11th.  If left to its own devices, it would continue to slip until it was happening in December and then Christmas would Easter and Easter would be — oh, it would have been a terrible mess by now.

So Pope Gregory the 13th said that March 11th 1582 would become March 21st and the calendar would jump ahead 10 days.  Order would be created out of chaos!  Unfortunately, the Catholic Church did not own the calendar all over the world and it took a long time (170 years in England) for his calendar to be adopted almost everywhere. (The Greeks didn’t adopt it until 1923, but they are, after all, Greek.)  Actually, taking away those 10 days from people created chaos out of order.  Workers rioted in the streets, shouting “Give us back our ten days!” (You see, because they weren’t going to be PAID for them.  Kind of like being a Federal employee on furlough two years ago.)

Okay, where was I?  Oh, yeah, George Washington.  Sheesh, I said this was going to be the short version.  So England and her colonies finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752.  George was 21 at the time.  He could have just kept on keeping on, in spite of the new calendar, but he was kind of a stickler for details and changed his birthday to February 22, 1732, which effectively made him a year younger.

So, kids, that’s the story of why you don’t know nuthin’ about George Washington’s birthday and why Monday, Feb 16th is a Federal holiday.  Well, anyway, it sort of explains some of the reasons why.

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