George Washington Day
Washington’s Birthday is celebrated on a Floating Monday (the third one) between February 15 and 21. His actual birthday, however, took place on February 11, according to the Julian calendar, or 22 when adjusted to the Gregorian calendar.
Since 1879, this federal holiday had honored the life of America’s first president on February 22, but in the late 20th century, not only the date, but also the purpose of the day’s celebration has changed. The US citizens no longer wished to praise only the one president; the holiday was supposed to encompass the achievements of all the nation’s leaders. Thus, there appeared many new day names throughout the country, some embracing every American president, and some referring solely to Washington and Lincoln (who was born on February 12): Presidents’ Day, Presidents Day, Washington’s Birthday, George Washington Day, Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day, Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday, etc. Some states, like Alabama, add Thomas Jefferson to the event.
George Washington is a primary public figure in American politics. He won with the British in the Revolutionary War in 1783, he was unanimously chosen to become the first president of the United States, and many still call him “the father” of the country. Ever since he died in 1799, the American public has deemed him their most significant historical leader. That is why directly after his demise, for tens of years people had celebrated his birthday on February 22. Making it a federal holiday was the idea of Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey. President Rutherford B. Hayes supported the concept and in 1879, the holiday was proclaimed by an Act of Congress. In 1951, Harold Stonebridge Fischer established the “President’s Day National Committee”, attempting to change the meaning of the holiday into a general praise of all presidents. The term found its supporters only in the 1980s; ten years earlier, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act changed the date of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday of the month. This shift led many people to believe that the emphasis changed slightly from Washington to Lincoln. The official government calendars still call this day “Washington’s Birthday”.
For many schools, this holiday is a good opportunity to lecture students about American presidents; many events and history quizzes are devoted to this topic throughout the whole month. In the army, Washington’s Birthday is a commemoration of the President as a brilliant 18th-century general and the Purple Heart medal as an important military decoration that he established. It is the time to mourn the dead army servicemen and to praise all veterans. This holiday, however, can be also merry and entertaining due to the annual parades and festivals. The most popular of all are the ones held in President Washington’s hometown Alexandria, Virginia; these celebrations can stretch through the whole month of February. In Eustis, Florida, the “George Fest” persists from its inception in 1902. An important event in this time is the annual reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address, which has begun in 1862.
Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day is a federal holiday, but a decreasing number of public institutions comply and close the offices. Before the 1980s, most businesses had used this occasion to take a day off. Nowadays, apart from the government offices, the U.S. Postal Service and an increasing number of educational institutions choose to close. A few schools prolong the 3-day weekend into a whole free week in order to create a mid-winter break.
Some might say that Washington’s Birthday is a thing of the past; the first president’s significance has not weakened, though. He is still the major contributor to the American history, only his successors’ importance has grown with time. That is why celebrations of President’s Day in the United States focus on George Washington (and sometimes on Abraham Lincoln), and all other leaders surround him on the pedestal.