Washington's Birthday

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Washington's Birthday (Presidents' Day, Washington-Lincoln Day)

Type of Holiday: Historic, National
Date of Observation: February 22 or third Monday in February
Where Celebrated: United States
Symbols and Customs: Cherry Tree
Colors: Washington's Birthday is often associated with the colors red, white, and blue, symbolic of the American flag and of patriotism in general. These colors can be seen not only in the flags and bunting that decorate public streets and buildings on this day, but also in advertisements promoting Presidents' Day sales.
Related Holidays: Lincoln's Birthday


As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and as the first president of the United States, George Washington has always played an important role in American literature and legend. People started celebrating his birthday while he was still alive, particularly during his two terms as president (1789-96). But they usually held their observances on February 11. The date wasn't shifted to February 22 until 1796, some years after the New Style or Gregorian calendar was adopted.

Richmond, Virginia, was the first town to sponsor a public celebration of George Washington's birthday, in 1782. Celebrations became more popular during his first term as president, then began to wane with the development of two political parties, the Federalists (with whom Washington sympathized) and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, who found such celebrations offensive. Partisan feelings weren't set aside until after Washington's death in 1799, when Congress passed a resolution calling on the nation to observe February 22, 1800, with appropriate activities.

George Washington's Birthday is a national holiday in the United States. National holidays can be defined as those commemorations that a nation's government has deemed important enough to warrant inclusion in the list of official public holidays. They tend to honor a person or event that has been critical in the development of the nation and its identity. Such people and events usually reflect values and traditions shared by a large portion of the citizenry. In the United States, patriotism and identity were nurtured from the beginning of the nation by the very act Washington's Birthday

of celebrating new events in holidays like the FOURTH OF JULY, battle anniversaries, and other notable occasions. This was even more important in the country's early years because the nation was composed of people from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. The invention of traditions and the marking of important occasions in the life of the new nation were crucial in creating a shared bond of tradition and a sense of common belonging to a relatively new homeland through the shared experience of celebrating common holidays. As more and diverse peoples migrated to the United States, it became even more important to celebrate significant annual anniversaries, and Washington's Birthday became one of the nation's most important shared celebrations.

The observance of Washington's Birthday didn't really take hold until 1832, the centennial of his birth. One of the most memorable celebrations was held in Los Angeles in 1850. The town's leading citizens decided to mark the occasion with a fancy ball, but some of the community's less refined members were excluded. They retaliated by firing a cannon into the ballroom, killing several men and wounding others.

While the third Monday in February is observed as Washington's Birthday by the federal government and most states, some combine it with the February birthday of another famous American president, Abraham Lincoln, calling it WashingtonLincoln Day or Presidents' Day (see LINCOLN'S BIRTHDAY). Today it is primarily a commercial event, as store owners take advantage of the holiday weekend to empty their shelves of midwinter stock.


Cherry Tree

Stories about George Washington's precocious adolescence were largely the invention of his biographers. Probably the most popular is the legend of how he chopped down one of his father's cherry trees and then owned up to his mistake by saying to his father, "I cannot tell a lie." There appears to be no historic basis for this tale, which first appeared in the 1806 edition of The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, by Parson Mason Weems. The cherry tree, along with the hatchet that chopped it down, has nevertheless come to represent the honesty and forthrightness for which Washington was revered.

Ironically, this and the other popular legend concerning George Washington- how he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River-are remembered today primarily by merchandisers. Their advertisements often employ phrases like, "We're chopping our prices for you!" or "Silver Dollar Days" to lure shoppers into America's malls during the holiday weekend.


Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Schaun, George and Virginia, and David Wisniewski. American Holidays and Special Days. 3rd ed. Lanham: Maryland Historical Press, 2002. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens www.mountvernon.org

Library of Congress memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/feb22.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Washington's (George) Birthday

February 22; observed third Monday in February
George Washington's birthday was not always celebrated in the United States as widely as it is today. The date itself was in question for a while, since the Gregorian calendar was adopted in England during Washington's lifetime and this shifted his birthday from February 11 to February 22 ( see Old Christmas Day). Then there was a period when Washington's association with the Federalist party made the Antifederalists (or Jeffersonian Republicans) uncomfortable, and they put a damper on any official celebrations. It wasn't until Washington's death in 1799 that such feelings disappeared and he was regarded as a national hero.
As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and as the first president of the United States, George Washington looms large in American literature and legend. By the centennial of his birth in 1832, celebrations were firmly established, and his name had been given not only to the nation's capital, but to a state and more than 20 cities and towns. The federal government combined Washington's birthday with that of another famous American president, Abraham Lincoln as Presidents' Day, observed on the third Monday in February.
At his death in 1799 Washington was a lieutenant general, then the highest military rank in the United States. That same year Congress had established the nation's highest military title, General of the Armies of the United States, intending it for him, but he didn't live to receive it. Subsequently, he was outranked by many U.S. Army officers, so in 1976 Congress finally granted it to him. He is now the senior general officer on Army rolls; General John J. Pershing is the only other officer to have been so honored—he received it in September 1919 for his work during World War I.
See also Washington's Birthday Celebration in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington's Birthday Celebration in Los Dos Laredos
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20540
202-707-5000; fax: 202-707-8366
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 155
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 284
BkHolWrld-1986, Feb 22
GdUSFest-1984, p. 198
OxYear-1999, p. 87
PatHols-2006, p. 265
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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