Why Today?

Today is George Washington’s Birthday—Except It’s Not

What used to be a holiday to celebrate our founding father’s birthday is now a holiday to celebrate every president. The reasons why are a little depressing.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Happy Washington’s Birthday, everybody!

… is what I would say if today were actually Washington’s birthday. It is not. Today is a lot of people’s birthdays—Michael Jordan, Huey P. Newton, Larry the Cable Guy—but Washington’s birthday? Not even close. I may as well wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day. I’d be just as accurate.

I know, it’s confusing. At times like these—when up is down, left is right, and today isn’t Washington’s birthday, despite what your calendar might tell you—it’s helpful to have someone to blame. In this case, we have an entire branch of government. Back when Congress actually did stuff, it passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which doesn’t do what many of us would hope it does: require everyone to wear uniforms on Mondays. (Cool idea, right?) No, the Act categorically moved some of our A-list holidays from their rightful and legitimate places on the calendar to…Monday.

It moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May. It pushed Veterans Day from November 11, a date that marks the end of World War I, to the fourth Monday in October. It invented Columbus Day, honoring Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, and plopped it, too, down on a Monday—the second one in October, even though Columbus finishing sailing the ocean blue in 1492 on a very specific day: October 12.

These are frustrating enough. Enough that veterans saw to it the Veterans Day be moved back. And I have to think it’s especially cruel to Columbus since, according to some calculations, he actually landed on a Friday, and was probably grateful for it. (After such a long voyage, the guy must have needed a few days off.) The change in Memorial Day, frankly, I’m not that perturbed by: the original date of May 30 wasn’t to honor a battle; by some accounts, it was chosen to maximize the number of flowers in bloom. So I say, have at it.

The one that galls most is the flippant treatment of our national hero George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732 (actually February 11, 1731, for those of you who have your iPhones and Androids set to display the Julian calendar). The good general would be surprised to learn he was actually born on the third Monday in February. Whenever that lands.

As someone who rewrote the Constitution, I’m in no position to say it’s disrespectful to rewrite the calendar. But it’s not that we reset our holiday schedules that irks me so; it’s why. Any guesses?

Yep: we the People wanted more three-day weekends.

For the record, I’m a fan of three-day weekends. I’ll even take some four-day weekends. But when he signed the bill into law in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson could only dress it up so much. The bill “will help Americans to enjoy more fully the country that is their magnificent heritage,” he declared. They “will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.” They “will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours.” Hear that—you have three days, America! So take a trip to Mount Rushmore, gaze upon Washington’s visage, and tell him to his giant face that today’s his birthday!

When it comes to the birthdate of our nation’s first president, turns out we can tell a lie. Especially one that lets us sleep in a bit.

And so we have President’s Day. Except we don’t really have that either. Because Congress never renamed it “Presidents’ Day.” It officially remains what it always was—Washington’s Birthday—despite the continued misconception. Even if it had, the name “Presidents’ Day” is off by at least one president. The public presumption that Presidents’ Day was intended to honor both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays is one of those convenient deductions we’ve made, no doubt to assuage our guilt over pushing around the Father of Our Country like he’s our little brother. (At best it’s President’s Day, not Presidents’ Day.) What’s more, the “third Monday” of February vacillates between Feb 15 and Feb 21, which means that the holiday of Washington’s Birthday (and again, the holiday is Washington’s Birthday) never lands on Washington’s, you know, birthday.

Close your ears, G-Dubs. This one will hurt most of all. Some states have even moved your birthday to November or December, in order to “observe” your holiday—from way over on the other end of the calendar—and celebrate your birth without the burden of creating more paid holidays. I can’t blame ‘em: I’m no fan of excessive government spending either. But I can name ‘em: shame on you, Georgia, Indiana and New Mexico! December 24, Georgia?— really?!

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It was President James Buchanan (born April 23, 1791, most likely a Saturday) who allegedly said, “When the birthday of Washington shall be forgotten, liberty will have perished from the earth!” That might be pouring it on a little thick (sounds like someone had just forgotten James’ birthday, I’m guessing) but that about covers it.

Just over a decade ago, we tried to do right by both Washington and Lincoln, with the “Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act of 2001,” which proposed that “Washington’s Birthday shall be referred to by that name and no other”—suck on that, Presidents’ Day—and that, so Lincoln doesn’t feel bad, Lincoln will heretofore get a presidential shout-out with an annual executive proclamation declaring that people should really, if they have the time, and they don’t mind too much, celebrate Lincoln’s birthday too. With “appropriate activities.” It wasn’t a holiday; it was a “request.”

Surely that would have cleared everything up. But neither the act nor the “request” ever made it out of subcommittee.

It’s hard to deny that if Washington were alive today—literally today, February 17—and he witnessed what we were up to—schools closed, post offices shuttered, mattresses on sale—he’d wonder what all the fuss was about. His birthday isn’t until Saturday.

So what do we have to say for ourselves? Um…SURPRISE!!