Comments & Curiosities: Calendars and some confusion

February 19, 2011|By Peter Buffa

Monday is Presidents' Day. But you already knew that.

Tell me something, though, just between us. What does Presidents' Day mean to you? Go ahead. Anyone? No?

The reason all you can hear is crickets when I ask that question is that the only thing Presidents' Day means to you, and me, and everyone else, is a three-day weekend, which is a good thing, and mattress sales, which are not as good.

But being a lifelong student of the odd, here is the real meaning of Presidents' Day to me: It just might be the most confusing holiday of all, with the possible exception of Founders' Day, which no living human being understands.


When I was a young-type person, Lincoln's birthday was Feb. 12 and Washington's birthday was Feb. 22. For reasons I didn't understand then and barely understand now, schools were closed on Washington's birthday (boo-yah!), but not on Lincoln's (just boo.) Apparently, saving the country and giving your life in the process is not enough to have your birthday be a national holiday.

But today, as everyone knows, Presidents' Day is a combined celebration of the birthdays of George Washington, President 1.0, and Abraham Lincoln, the tall man with the sad face. The problem is, everyone is wrong. I don't know if there is a Confucius Day in China, but I think we should rename the third Monday in February in this country Confusion Day.

In 1968, Congress made the third Monday in February a national holiday celebrating Washington's birthday, period. Just Washington, no Lincoln. Sorry, Abe. To make things confusing right from the start, that law didn't take effect until 1971.

In the years that followed, a number of states and cities passed resolutions declaring the day "Presidents' Day," to celebrate the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln. That made sense since the third Monday in February always falls between Feb. 15 and Feb. 21, which is pretty close to the birthdays of both presidents. Pretty close, yes, but no cigar.

Yes, Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, but Washington was born on Feb. 11, 1732, not Feb. 22. The problem is differences between the Julian calendar, which people used in the way back times, and the Gregorian calendar, which is what we have been using since 1752, which transposed the old Feb. 11 to the new Feb. 22.

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