In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.
The Debunker: Is Presidents Day a National Holiday?
The presidential holiday in February was created not by the mattress and used car salesmen who are so fond of it today, but by an act of Congress in 1879. The holiday was officially named “Washington’s Birthday,” just as it is today. Since Abraham Lincoln was born in February, there’s been some movement toward making the holiday a day to celebrate both presidents, or all presidents (even the loser ones), or the presidency in general. Many states have followed suit: 17 call it “Presidents’ Day” (check the apostrophe—multiple presidents), 4 call it “President’s Day” (just one president, no indication of which one), and 5 call it “Presidents Day” (no apostrophe, anyone’s guess). Only fifteen states call it “Washington’s Birthday,” as the U.S. government still officially does.
But it gets weirder. Thanks to a 1971 law that standardized federal holidays on Mondays, (to allow more three-day weekends, naturally) Washington’s Birthday is never observed on George Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. But that’s okay, because George Washington wasn’t even born on his own birthday! Washington’s birthday was recorded on February 11, 1732—according to the old Julian calendar, still in use at the time. In 1752, England (and its colonies) switched to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, but they had to skip twelve days to do so. September 3-13, 1752 simply never existed. Washington, then a young surveyor in Virginia, began celebrating his birthday on February 22, to account for the gap, and did so for the rest of his life. Under current law neither February 11 nor February 22 can ever be the Washington’s Birthday holiday.
Phew. And you thought remembering your Mom’s birthday was confusing.
Quick Quiz: The 1990s band Presidents of the United States of America had their biggest hit with what song about a girl “in my head” who “might be dead”?
Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.