We are excited to be celebrating George Washington’s 290th birthday (although it’s the day before his actual birth date) on President’s Day! On February 22, 1732, George was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Some interesting facts are associated with his birth-date and the subsequent birthday celebrations he would have as an adult. For instance, did you know that he technically has two birthdays? It’s true! Under the Julian calendar, his birth date would have been February 11, 1731. This means that his birthday was actually earlier in the month until the calendar switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The Gregorian calendar added 11 days and one year to his date of birth!
Just when did his birthday become so popular to celebrate? The earliest known date of his birthday being recognized (beyond his family) was actually during the American Revolution. It was the winter of 1778, and the soldiers were desperate to keep warm at their headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. General Henry Knox planned the event. Clearly, General Knox did more than coordinate the movement of cannons from Canada to Boston; he apparently could also list “party planner” upon his resume.
The festivities of this inaugural birthday bash included a parade from an artillery band consisting of drums and fifes. Around this time, George was also becoming known as the “Father of his Country,” replacing King George III at every chance. For instance, the King’s birthday would no longer be listed in the Almanac. Instead, you would find the birth-date of George Washington. However, that doesn’t quite answer the question of when his birthday became an annual event on a broader scale.
For that, we turn to everyone’s favorite statesman, whose most significant accomplishment was never being elected President of the United States despite the number of times he ran for that office. The one, the only…Henry Clay. Senator Clay was part of a joint Congressional committee that wanted to recognize the centennial of George’s birth. They decided to do this by giving themselves the day off and adjourning Congress on February 22, 1832. While not the celebration you might have imagined, it did get the ball rolling for an expanded holiday that we celebrate today.
As the years went by, cities, states, and even Congress realized they had to do more to commemorate George’s contribution to the Nation. In 1862, yes, in the midst of the Civil War, the Senate began to read Washington’s Farewell Address each year on his birthday. In 1879, Congress made the date a federal holiday for federal employees ONLY IN DC. Though this caused confusion among those employees as some were paid for that holiday and others were not… This discrepancy was amended in 1885 when the holiday became a paid one for all DC federal workers.
Almost 100 years after the Senate began their annual tradition of reading the Farewell Address on February 22, Congress passed the Monday Holiday law to make federal holidays more uniform. So instead of celebrating George’s birthday on February 22, it was recognized on the third Monday of the month. There are two interesting things about this law when applied to George’s birthday. First, because of February’s shortened number of days, there is no possible way for the federally observed holiday to fall on his actual birthday. Second, the holiday we all know as “President’s Day” doesn’t actually exist. It has yet to be formally changed by Congress or the President from being first recognized as “Washington’s Birthday,” which is pretty fascinating!
If you’re looking for a fun way to celebrate George’s birthday this year, I encourage you to check out our event at Ferry Farm. For the event, we are offering tours of the reconstructed Washington House, new (and returning) crafts, a chance to meet real archeologists and learn about what they’ve found at the site, the opportunity to see if you can throw a stone as far as George supposedly could, and obviously, we’re having cupcakes because it’s a birthday party!
This year’s event will be held on Monday, February 21, from 10 am to 3 pm, and tickets can be purchased by visiting our website. Tickets are $5 per adult (age 18+) and FREE for children (17 & unders). We encourage you to purchase your tickets in advance.
-Amy N. Durbin, Director of Education