Happy Washington’s Birthday!

It was a simple question the Always-Effervescent-One posed as we sipped our morning coffee. “When did this Monday holiday idea begin?” she asked, quite innocently. Neither of us could remember, so I turned to that ultimate source of all wisdom, Wikipedia. The answer is January 1, 1971, in accordance with The Uniform Monday Holiday Act. If confusion ruins the taste of your morning coffee, or your afternoon tea, read no further. The chaos we rightly blame on all actions of governments is about to be exposed, once again.

George Washington PortraitToday is February 19, 2018. It is a national holiday officially known as Washington’s Birthday. In Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming it is officially President’s Day to commemorate the life and service of our very first president of the United States of America. On the other hand, if you live in Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon today is proclaimed to be Presidents Day altering the tradition of honoring only President George Washington. Similarly, In Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington State, its otherwise declared to be Presidents’ Day for the purpose of honoring all presidents.

Virginia, the home of the first president, appropriately calls this George Washington Day. That’s not all. In Maine, today is Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day and in Arizona it’s Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day. Perhaps the most creative, or possibly the most absurd, name comes to us from Arkansas which celebrates George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day today. If you are still interested, you can find at least another half-dozen variations in various states and territories. Even Toronto, Canada recognizes Washington’s Birthday with American Flags and bunting. Go figure! My favorite by a long shot, comes from my favorite state never to emulate, California, which has declared this third Monday in February as . . . The Third Monday in February.

George Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731, and that is the official date of his birth as registered in Virginia, a British colony at the time. A strange thing happened 21 years later (1752) when the British Empire decided to adopt the Gregorian Calendar which had already been adopted by Roman Catholic and other countries in Europe and elsewhere at various times since 1582 when Pope Gregory decreed its official recognition by the Roman Catholic Church. Great Britain and its colonies, along with many other Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries in Europe and elsewhere continued to use the Julian Calendar. Over the course of several hundred years, most countries came to recognize the superiority of the Gregorian Calendar and they switched. All developed countries in the world now recognize the Gregorian Calendar as modified several times over the years.  Many religions continue to use the Julian Calendar as well as others.

There are several differences between the Gregorian and Julian Calendars, but two are pertinent to what we call the date of Washington’s Birth. If we pretend that he was born in a place where the Gregorian Calendar was used, then his birthday would have been February 22, 1732. The Julian Calendar celebrated New Years on March 25, so January, February, and the first 24 days of March belonged to the previous year. The year 1732 didn’t start until March 25 in the colonies, about six weeks after Washington was born. March 25 was supposed to be the day in the year when spring began, and by ancient Roman tradition, the new year started at the Vernal Equinox. Since the Julian Calendar had no regularly spaced leap years, it was off by several days.

It takes approximately 365.25 days for the Earth to complete one orbit of the sun (a year). Every four years (Leap Years), the Julian Calendar would vary from the Gregorian Calendar by missing a day, and this explains the second important difference between the two calendars. By 1752, a difference of eleven days had accumulated since the Gregorian Calendar was created. In Virginia, February 11, 1731 was known as February 22, 1732, if you lived in Italy or France, among others.  Very few people noticed because communication and transportation was by ship which took months.  Most people were not as time or date aware as we have become with our modern technology, high speed transportation, and instant communication.

Another difference in the calendars was when New Years Day was recognized. In the Gregorian Calendar, it was January 1st. Shifting a country from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar caused some confusing and interesting oddities. In the colonies, there never was a January, February, or the first 24 days of March in the year following the shift. Those dates do not exist because the year changed on that date instead of on March 25. The year of the change was 94 days shorter than other years. This included another necessary correction. When you went to bed on the evening of Wednesday, September 2, 1752, you hoped to wake up the next morning, but you would discover that it was suddenly Thursday, September 14, 1752. No one in the colonies could possibly be born on any of the dates between September 2, 1752 and September 14, 1752.

So, Happy Washington’s Birthday! No matter the date, he was a great man who helped to establish a great country and we should take a moment to honor his unique service.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Education, Musings, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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