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George Washington Missed His Own Birthday Party

February 22, 2017

If you live in the United States, you know that Monday February 20th was Presidents Day. (There’s actually debate over whether the apostrophe should be included: President’s, Presidents’ or Presidents. This post isn’t about that controversy.) We celebrate Presidents Day to remember Presidents Washington and Lincoln. There’s no question that Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. He would have turned 208 last Sunday. It’s probably a good thing they did that statue of him in Washington based on when he was younger.

It’s less clear when George Washington’s birthday was. If you look at your calendar, it will clearly tell you that he was born on February 22, 1732. So, feel free to have a party today celebrating George’s 285 birthday. Just don’t expect George to show up for it. And not just because he’s been dead for 217 years.

See, George already celebrated the big 285 back on February 11. In fact, throughout his life George Washington consistently celebrated his birthday on February 11. . .even after the government switched it to February 22.

When Washington was born, the American colonies, as part of the British empire followed the Julian calendar. It was called Julian because it was conceived by Julius Ceasar. The process of days and months were put together by the famous general. He named a summer month after himself: July. August was named after another Roman emperor, Augustus Ceaser. October was named for Octavious. If you look at the calendar, you will notice that those three months, all named after famous Roman leaders, all have 31 days. It’s not a coincidence that they made sure that their month had at least as many days as anyone else’s. Alas, poor February took the brunt of abuse. (Probably because there was no Emperor February to protect it. February is based on the latin word februare which means “to purify.”)

But what does Julius Ceasar’s calendar devised in 45 BC have to do with George Washington? Very, very little, it turns out. But, very, very little is not nothing. See, Ceasar (actually his calendar guy) figured out that we needed a leap year. He switched the calendar from a lunar cycle to a cycle based on the sun. And he understood that the earth rotation around the sun wasn’t exactly 365 days. So, every four years we got a leap year. And that’s how it continued. . .for a long time. . .like really long. . .hundreds of years. But, we don’t just add an extra day every four years. Because even with the leap year we still are just slightly off of matching the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. To compensate, we actually add “leap centuries.”

About 1500 years after Ceasar fixed the calendar, it was broken again.

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 were.
– Wikipedia

In 1582, Pope Gregory fixed the calendar. The world hadn’t been counting those leap centuries and the days were off by about 10. When the rest of Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar, the British stayed on the Julian calendar. Why didn’t they get on board with the latest technology? Henry VIII. The guy who had all those wives. He wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon after she failed to produce a male heir. But, being Catholic, you had to get the Pope’s permission to get your marriage annulled. (And the fact that they had a daughter makes the whole question of annulment an interesting one anyway.) Catherine was the sister of the King of Spain, at the time that Henry was trying to get his annullment, the Pope was a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew Emperor Charles V.

Catherine didn’t want a divorce, and made sure her nephew understood her wishes. He in turn let his prisoner, the Holy See, know that it would be a very bad idea to annoy his aunt. Pope Clement VII was clearly not a stupid man and refused to grant the annullment. Not getting the result he wanted from the Catholic church, Henry decided he’d form his own Church. Which he did in 1530 and promptly granted himself an annulment.

As you have no doubt noticed, 1530, the date of the split between the Anglican Church in England and the Catholic church, is before Gregory fixed the calendar in 1582. So, by the time the Catholic church got around to fixing the calendar by adding 10 days, England had decided it wanted nothing to do with the Church in Rome, including their new fangled calendar. So, England stuck to the Julian calendar and the rest of Europe updated their dates to reflect the new Gregorian Calendar. And that’s how it stayed for a lot more years, until 1752. It was in that year that the British Empire finally got on board with the new calendar. By now the two systems were 11 days out of sync.

To sync the calendars, it was decided that Wednesday September 2, 1752 would be followed by Thursday September 14. And that was officially the shortest two weeks in the history of the world. Now that the calendars were in sync, they still had to fix the dates. It was decided that things like birthdays would also be moved forward 11 days so that the celbrations were still happening about the same time of the year. Washington, as has been said, was born in 1731. He was obviously born before the big calendar switch. So, his birthday, like everyone elses jumped forward 11 days. They also shaved nearly a year off his age, by moving the year of his birth from 1731 to 1732. This was done by changing the start of the year (from March 25 to January 1) and pushing all dates ahead one year. It was designed to keep people’s physical age closer to their calendar age

The problem was that Washington decided he didn’t like February 22. He continued to celebrate his birthday on the same day that he had for the first twenty years of his life: February 11. (Well, the first 19 years of his life after the calendar change.) 

So, as you raise a glass to Old George today, realize that he’s already had his party 11 days and a year ago.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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