Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How the Pope Changed Washington's B'day

A vintage Washington's Birthday postcard from the collection of Russell Hughes of Orlando, Florida.

In 2003, I drafted a book about American holidays and their history. Though it wasn't published, the following is from the February chapter:

Most of our founding fathers, George Washington included, were born under the Julian calendar, but died under the Gregorian: so the days of their birth shifted in the middle of their lives.

George Washington's original birth year was 1731.

The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar, 46 years before the birth of Christ, and for more than fifteen centuries it was the standard calendar used in the West: and by some countries in the East as well. Caesar established a year that was 364 1/4 days long, designed to synchronized with a complete cycle of the Earth's seasons.

But his year was eleven minutes, fourteen seconds too slow, which didn't mean much at first. But by the sixteenth century, the date that marked the New Year--which was then the first day of spring--was ten days behind the vernal equinox.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII consulted with scientists and devised a calendar so accurate that it is still in use today. Called the Gregorian calendar in his honor, it creates leap years, which add one day to the calendar every four years, except on centennial years--unless the year is divisible by four.

He then decreed that the New Year would henceforth begin January 1, instead of March 21; and to get the calendar caught up with the seasons, he told everybody they were going to have to lose ten days in the process.

October 4, 1582, would be followed by October 15, 1582. Since he was the Pope he could order this sort of thing and have it happen. Well, almost.

By the sixteenth century, the West was no longer entirely Roman Catholic. The Reformation had swept Europe, the Orthodox churches in the East followed their own calendar, and it consequently took several centuries for the new calendar to be widely adopted.

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers were all caught up in the change. Britain and her colonies finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, and by that time they had to add eleven days to make it come out right.

September 2, 1752 was followed by September 14, 1752. George Washington, who was 21 at the time, got a new birth date. The original date of his birth, February 11, 1731 (now called O.S. for Old Style) was changed to February 22, 1732 (now called N.S. for New Style). The change of the year, came because Washington was born between January--when the New Year now began--and March--when the New Yard had begun (O.S.)

George Washington kept a diary his entire life and imagine how confusing it was for him! A full five years before the switch, a teenage GW made a diary entry dated Fryday, March 11th 1747/8. It suggests the upcoming change was already on his mind.

What happened, do you suppose, to the eleven days everyone in America lost in 1752? And here's another question: Washington died in 1799. Was he 68 when he died? Or 67?

People in the U.S. began honoring our first president's birthday during his lifetime and the celebrations varied even then. Some were held on the 11th of February and some on the 22nd. This is another vintage card from the Russell Hughes collection.

The U.S. Archives has transcribed all of George Washington's diaries and has them available now On Line. One of the most fascinating things you can do is to read through them and learn more about the life of this remarkable man.

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11 comments:

Don Meuler said...

This gives a headache, and makes me think of the paradox of time-travel. Are you a sci-fi junkie? I love the Terminator movies, but cannot rationalize the inhererent paradox of the plot(s).

I may have wandered off-topic...

Robin Chapman said...

No, the whole time thing is very relevant. BTW, I have eleven days in my life I would like to eliminate. I wonder if the Pope would help me out with that?

Don Meuler said...

I hope the Pope would throw you a rope... Is that eleven consecutive days, or pick and choose? I'd pick my eleven worst, if I could remember them.

Robin Chapman said...

I think if we could just leave out the day I got married, it would make those other ten days unnecessary to eliminate!

Don Meuler said...

'Nuff said.

peretzklein said...

This was a fascinating blog! I do understand, however, why Julius Ceasar devised his calendar. The Vernal Eqinox was the day that the Sun God crossed into the Northern Hemisphere, bringing renewed life to the world. Secondly, this same Equinox was the supposed day of the Exodus from Egypt that is detailed in the book of Exodus; in it, God is quoted instruting Moses that "this will be the first of your months".

I'm sure that those 11 days that you mentioned will be added on to you when you need them the most.

Robin Chapman said...

You know, that is the sweetest thing anyone has said to me in a long time.

peretzklein said...

You are most welcome. I only wish that you would have mentioned them sooner.

Robin Chapman said...

Like Henry Ford my family's motto is: "Never complain, never explain." And anyway, it was a long time ago and life brings many changes, as you also know. I have had so many blessings it is only natural I should also have sorrows.

peretzklein said...

To paraphrase Gibran, to have never loved is to laugh, but not all of your laughter, and to cry, but not all of your tears.

Robin Chapman said...

Too heavy for me. Let's just call the Sopranos ...