A Little Something About George Washington’s Birthdays
Welcome to the February 2014 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
That’s right. Birthdays with an “s”…
Can you imagine having two birthdays every year? Well, for 47 of his 67 years, George Washington did. The first was the date on which he was born in 1732, February 11th. But wait—wasn’t his birthday always on February 22nd? Not always. In 1752, you see, when George Washington was twenty, Great Britain adopted the new, improved calendar instituted by Pope Gregory the 13th late in the 16th century and proceeded to impose it on us as we were then colonies of Great Britain. This newly imposed Gregorian calendar, as it became known, fixed the length of the solar year at 365 days, to which was added one day every four years if said year was divisible by four (i.e. Leap Year).
The switch to the Gregorian calendar from the old Julian calendar (named for Julius Caesar) was because the old calendar had become out of whack relative to the sun’s and earth’s cycles by ten whole days. By 1752, it was off by eleven whole days. So those eleven days were simply dropped that year. The day following February 1, for instance, was not February 2nd. It was February 11th. So George Washington’s old birthday on February 11th jumped all the way to February 22nd.
Although at first many colonial communities refused to go along with this, George Washington apparently took the change in stride and, from 1752 on, accepted February 22nd as his birthday. On the other hand, he didn’t completely ignore his old February 11th birthday. For instance in 1799 he attended a gala birthday party in his honor in Alexandria, Virginia, on February 11th, writing in his diary that night that he “went up to Alexandria for the celebration of my birthday.”
Eleven days later, on February 22nd, 1799, he celebrated his second birthday of that year which turned out to be the last of his life. He died ten months later, on the evening of December 14th, 1799.
I think it’s ironic that today we don’t really celebrate either one of George Washington’s two February birthdays. The closest we come is our celebration of Presidents’ Day—this year on Monday, February 17th.
Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is on February 12th this year. Actually, it’s always on February 12th. I like it better that way. And one birthday a year is probably enough.