My calendar says that Monday, February 17th is Presidents’ Day. While that’s not fake news, it’s not entirely true, either. Is this day for all the presidents? Is it for George and Abe? Is it for only the presidents we like? I’m old enough to remember when George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had their own birthdays. Not only that, I’m old enough to know who they were. A recent “American on the Street, or Beach, or Couch” poll showed that a popular misconception is that the first president of the United States was Benjamin Franklin. As most older generations (or, “fogies”) know, Franklin was never president, except of the “Fry Yourself with a Kite and a Key” club. He also made a pretty mean stove. Footnote: (Inserted here, as no one reads footnotes any more) The second most popular answer was Alexander Hamilton, evidently because he was a nifty singer and dancer.
Before we sink farther into the quagmire, let’s establish a couple of facts. (Facts are an outdated concept, I know, but just for fun…) Fact one: Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. Fact two: George Washington was born February 11, 1731. What? Yes, I cannot lie, when little future Prez George came into the world, his proud ma and pa looked at the bank calendar on the wall, and it said February 11, 1731.
That’s because the world was still wrestling with the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Many countries also used their own variations of calendars. In 1752, Britain and its colonies formally adopted the Gregorian, chanting, “It’s been around since 1582, let’s finally make the switcheroo.” A nervous messenger had to approach George and ask him, “Doest thou mindeth if we moveth your birthday ahead by eleven days plus a year? Hear ye, it will now resideth on February 22, 1732.” You see, they already knew how great he was going to be, what with all the cherry tree chopping and not lying and all. And a very tolerant George said, “That be-eth cool, (maybe we canst agree-eth to dropeth the phony colonial lingo here) as long as I don’t have to share a holiday with Abe Lincoln, or for that matter, with several dozen other presidents.”
When I was growing up, the nation celebrated Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th and Washington’s on February 22nd. It should be noted, though, that only Washington’s birthday was a national holiday. The trouble started in 1968 when Congress, realizing they didn’t have anything really important to do, as it was a pretty tranquil year, passed new holiday legislation. When finally enacted in 1971, the Uniform Monday Act moved certain holidays to Monday, especially those that had to do with uniforms. Washington’s Birthday was bounced around, which seems an egregious insult to a day that had already been moved by a year and eleven days. I’d be really miffed if my birthday was treated so shabbily, and I’m not even great or famous or a president. Well, that’s Congress for you – always expanding the list of those they treat shabbily.
It’s worth pointing out that the Act did not combine Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, nor did it use the term “Presidents Day,” nor did it lump all presidents into the holiday, which would make for quite a lumpy day. The misconception probably arose from placing the federal observance of Washington’s Birthday between Abe’s and George’s birthdays. Add to that the fact that states have their own holidays and call them whatever they wish, and that the main way the federal holiday is observed is by furniture stores and other hucksters having Presidents Day sales, and well… It’s a wonder people aren’t thinking it’s for Denzel Washington and Lincoln Navigators, and maybe someday it will be.
The increasingly questionable news media is doing its part to add to the confusion, by calling the holiday Presidents Day instead of Washington’s Birthday, and saying it’s for all presidents, which it isn’t. Many people dislike the idea of saying that the day is, for example, as much for Millard Fillmore as for George Washington, or even James Buchanan as much as Abe.
You may have noticed that I’ve spelled “President’s Day” inconsistently – sometimes with an apostrophe, sometimes without. That’s because not only is there no agreement on the holiday, there’s also no agreement on how to spell it. Some style manuals say one, some the other. Well, that’s the divided world we live in. And I certainly don’t want to offend anyone, so I use both. The easy answer, though, is that if we’re talking about the official federal holiday (the reason you won’t get mail that day) – it’s spelled “Washington’s Birthday.”
So let’s keep our presidents and holidays straight, and our ducks in a row. Here’s a little ditty to help us celebrate:
Into the puzzle of birthdays we delve,
George on the 22nd, and Abe on Feb 12.
Lincoln comes first, if alphabetically we arrange,
As does his birthday, so it shouldn’t seem strange.
They get their own day, they weren’t born as twins,
Celebrate them separately, and each of them wins.
The other prexies can fend for themselves,
Abe and George are giants, the rest of them, elves.
It’s Washington’s birthday we celebrate,
Our first chief exec, the greatest of great.
Remember Yorktown, and also Valley Forge,
He defeated the Redcoats, our good President George.