George Washington was born on February 11, 1731. At least, that was the date on the Julian calendar then in use in America and throughout the British Empire. But on the continent of Europe, they were using a different calendar, the Gregorian calendar, which had been created in 1582; when Pope Gregory XIII ordered everyone to skip forward ten days and then use Leap Years to keep things straight going forward. All the Catholic countries conformed, the Protestant countries refused. And so the two calendars, Julian and Gregorian, co-existed and clashed for almost two centuries. It wasn’t until Washington’s lifetime that the British and her colonies finally went Gregorian, and Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752. (It was a shift of 11 days, as the Julian calendar had slipped another full day since the time of Gregory.)
For Washington, this meant that, for the first 21 years of his life, he celebrated his birthday on February 11 (Julian calendar). But from that point onward, he could also have celebrated it on February 22, (the date on which he would have been born had America been using the Gregorian calendar). As Washington’s legend grew, and as celebrations of his birthday became more common, folks had to choose which date to use. Washington seemed to prefer the 11th, and most of the birthday bashes he personally attended occurred on that date. But in the national discussion, the 22nd was more common. By the last year of his life, Washington had fully accepted it; in a 1799 letter regarding the upcoming wedding of his granddaughter Nelly, he proudly reported that she would be married on his birthday, February 22.
And so it was, from his death onwards, that Washington’s Birthday was most commonly celebrated on the 22nd. In 1879, Congress added February 22 to the list of paid vacation days for federal employees in the District of Columbia, and in 1885 expanded it to all federal employees. And that made it official: Washington’s Birthday, February 22.
But then along came that whippersnapper Abraham Lincoln! Born on February 12, 1809, Lincoln became a legend almost as important as Washington. Soon after his death in 1865, folks were clamoring for equal recognition for Lincoln, a February 12 holiday co-equal with February 22. Most of the northern states conformed; the former confederate states refused. And so the two holidays, a national Washington’s Birthday and a regional Lincoln’s Birthday, co-existed and clashed for almost a century. It wasn’t until 1968 that the situation was finally rectified. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Washington’s Birthday (as well as Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day) from a fixed dates to a specific Monday. It didn’t rename the holiday, it just gave it a new official date: Washington’s Birthday, third Monday in February.
And so we come to it, our great long-weekend tribute to the father of our country. Officially, it is NOT President’s Day. Officially, if has NOTHING to do with Lincoln. Officially, it is STILL Washington’s Birthday.
Which is ironic, since it falls on the third Monday in February, it could land anywhere from February 15th to February 21st. But it CANNOT land on Washington’s actual birthday. Either one of them.