Culture, History

Happy (Belated) Birthday, George Washington!

So here we are on February 22, 2021, all set to observe George Washington’s 289th birthday.  Right?

Not so fast.

It’s true that, for years, February 22 was a national holiday in the United States.  Banks were closed.  Schools were closed.  No mail was delivered.  Department stores nationwide celebrated the end of the “white sales” they’d been promoting since the turn of the new year.  (As a furriner, it took me years to discover that “white sale” was a term of art rather than cultural reference, and that it simply related to deep discounts, store-wide, with particular attention to linens, bedding, and bath items.  I doubt the descriptive term is used so much anymore, and expect that, like so much else, including the official celebration of Washington’s birthday, it’s simply Gone.  Gone With The Wind.)

But I digress. Imagine my surprise.

Back to the man himself.  Let’s start (but not end, as so many unfortunately do) with Wikipedia.  What does Wikipedia have to say about the guy?  Well, it starts out by saying that

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and was the first of six children of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. His father was a justice of the peace and a prominent public figure who had three additional children from his first marriage to Jane Butler.

So far, so good.

But what’s this?  A note?  What does the note say? It says:

Contemporaneous records used the Old Style Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, [and recorded] his birth as February 11

Oh.  Well. Contemporaneous records.  Who gives a hoot about contemporaneous records anymore?

Not too many, if one judges by appearances these days.  Still, best to be thorough, and follow this little discrepancy down the rabbit hole to resolution.

Here’s the scoop:

Up until the mid-eighteenth century, the Western world kept track of days, months, and years with the Julian Calendar, one introduced by Julius Caesar in 50BC or so.  Caesar’s calendar replaced the previous lunar calendar, which was quite imprecise and required synods of astronomers to keep track of things and to make regular changes to add or remove days in order to sync up the calendar with the astronomical charts and events.  In order to bake these variations into the cake and eliminate the fiddling around, the Julian Calendar introduced the “leap year,” adding an extra day at the end of February every fourth year. (February was considered the last month of the year at the time–if you’ve ever wondered why “October,” the tenth month for us, is actually named for the number eight, wonder no more.)  But over time, even this accommodation was found to be inadequate, and eventually it became evident that another change needed to be made to sync the calendar with major astronomical events such as the solstices and equinoxes, and to bring religious observances such as Easter, back into compliance with traditional dates.

Enter, in the mid sixteenth-century, Pope Gregory and a bevy of scientists and mathematicians who, after much to-ing and fro-ing, recommended the Gregorian Calendar which adjusted the leap year formula by invalidating the extra leap day in “century” years–1700, 1800, 1900, 2000, etc.–unless they were divisible by 400, rather than by four.  This synced the calendar up a little better with the solar year, but didn’t fix the fact that things were already out of whack.  That was fixed by simply ‘cancelling’ ten days from the calendar, so that, upon its formal adoption, October 4 1582 was immediately followed by October 15 1582.  And, poof! October 5-14 simply disappeared as if they never were.  Because they weren’t.

The Gregorian Calendar was quickly adopted by a number of Catholic countries because, you know, Pope, but the Protestant countries of Europe and points West were less enchanted by the idea, and took a little longer to get on board.

In 1732, The Empire (you know, The Empire. Need I be more specific? Surely not), was still using the Julian calendar, holding its breath and refusing to go along with the various Most Catholic Majesties of the world who had all adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. This Great Date Shift put most of the world out of step with reality, which, praise be, still pertained in Great Britain and its colonies until 1752, when George II finally cried Uncle (not sure why, his uncles were a pretty undistinguished lot), and switched the dates.

This catapulted The Empire forward 11 days (one day more than in the original shift two-hundred years previous, in order to account for the ongoing inaccuracies since), prompting the British Calendar Riots of 1752, and the eruption of large crowds of the arithmetically and chronologically-challenged into the streets shouting “Give us back our eleven days!!!”

(I’d like to think that mankind [pace Justin Trudeau] has progressed in not only intellect and sophistication but also computational skills since those days, but I’m disabused of that quaint notion whenever I look at Twitter.)

But, I digress. Again

Back to the point. Most of you have probably figured out by now that February 11, plus 11 days because of the calendar switch, equates to February 22, and you can clearly see why we end up where we do, vis-a-vis Washington’s putative birthday.

What did Washington himself think of this change?

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.

We should all be so lucky.

So let’s raise a toast to George Washington today.  And perhaps, following his example, next year we’ll raise two!  Since I live in one of the many counties that was named after the man, in the heart of Whiskey Rebellion country, I’m going to start with a glass of “Rebellion Rye.” Who’ll join me?


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