February 22 is George Washington’s birthday. And for those of us who grew up a few short steps from Mount Vernon and our nation’s capital, the date holds a special place on the calendar and in our hearts.
Along with Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, Washington’s “real” birthday used to be a holiday and a local day off from school. Until the creation of a more generic “Presidents Day” in 1971, the shortest month of the year was distinguished by having two full vacation days honoring presidents. Ironically, the national holiday will never fall on February 22 and the date is increasingly lost to history.
But for those who remember, Washington’s Birthday was celebrated with the best sales of the year. Long lines formed early in the morning at Hecht’s and Woodward & Lothrop, where you could pick-up a rug, an appliance, or last season’s “ must have” fashions for a song. Sadly, the Presidents Day “cyber” sales don’t seem the same.
And since 1862, Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he urged Americans to view themselves as a cohesive unit and avoid excessive political partisanship, is read on his birthday in the U.S. Senate. Will anyone be listening this year?
Before February 22 became just another day, school children prepared for the holiday by cutting out presidential silhouettes and reading stories extolling Washington’s honesty and heroism. Area bakeries featured cherry pies in honor of Washington’s alleged encounter with a cherry tree.
Unfortunately, little remains of the original celebrations except in places where Washington is celebrated as both namesake and mascot.
In 1904, the Columbian University became what is now known as The George Washington University. School colors were changed from orange and blue to blue and buff to honor the uniform George Washington wore when he resigned as Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783.
Today, the students at George Washington University will mark Washington’s 284th Birthday by visiting Mount Vernon and participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb. This tradition along with the lighting of a bonfire in the middle of University Yard, which took place over the weekend, helps keep the link to our first president alive.
In Chestertown, Maryland, where Washington College celebrates both a namesake and founding patron, the revolutionary spirit carries on with an annual Birthday Ball and the awarding of the George Washington Book Prize at Mount Vernon as well as the occasional flash mob.
But in another ironic twist, American University probably owes the most to George Washington. According to Kenneth Davis, author of Don’t Know Much about George Washington, Washington deeply regretted that he never attended college. As a result, one of his pet projects was to establish a university in the capital that would be open to all American citizens. Although Washington never lived to see his dream become a reality, American University, which doesn’t carry his name, was founded as a direct result of his efforts.
So as you reach for a slice of cherry pie, think about the man, the day, and all he inspired.