What Day Is It?

Today we in America celebrate the birth of our first President. George Washington was born on February 11, 1731 and ironically celebrated his 22 birthday on February 22, 1753. Reread that if you have to. Now, we Americans celebrate his birthday on the third Monday in February which never falls on either date.

How did George Washington’s birthday change when he turned 22? Part of the blame lies with Henry VIII. When Henry, frustrated with not getting an annulment to his first marriage in a quest to father a male heir, broke, first from the doctrine of Papal authority, and eventually totally from the Roman Catholic Church, it caused armed insurrection in England, and led to the execution of priests and even ordinary folk who still considered themselves Catholic. This enmity quickly led to a hatred of anything that smacked of the “papists”, that the English Protestants turned into an serious insult equivalent to “traitor”. Hence, England refused to adopt the Gregorian Calendar when promulgated by Pope Gregory VI half a century and seven popes later in 1582.

Why was a new calendar needed in 1582? Let’s start with the ancient Egyptans. As agriculture started to spread, it became a matter of great importance to know when spring begins (the vernal equinox). The Egyptians had long known that the year lasted 365 days, so they could track and anticipate the annual flooding of the great Nile river that overflowed its banks for miles on either side in the vast plains of upper (northern) Egypt. As centuries passed though, the calendar no longer seemed to be working.

The Egyptians could still observe the sun and stars and determine the day of the equinox, but it didn’t come on the same calendar day anymore. In order to fix this error, the Ancient Egyptians had to invent fractions to account for the rounding error in the length of the year. The invention of fractions was a historic act of genius, that let the Egyptians fix their calendar—mostly. In reality the earth revolves around the sun once in every 365.2422 days. So to make the calendar work, the Egyptians rounded the fraction to 365.25, or an extra quarter of a day every year. They then added an extra day every 4 years.

That system was inherited by the Romans even if they and eventually the Christians changed the starting date. It worked for a very long time. Still, after a thousand years or two, the difference between 365.2500 and 365.2422 had again thrown off the calendar, and Western Europe was faced with a calendar 11 days off from what the astronomers knew was the day when Spring came.

Changing .2422 into accurate whole numbers to keep the calendar straight, is rather mind-boggling, and I have nothing but pity for programmers who will have to deal with the absence of a leap day in 2100. And we thought Y2K was a headache! Feel free to read about the quirks of the Gregorian Calendar on your own if you like.

In any case, by 1752, the need for international trade among countries whose calendars were 11 days apart became quite bothersome. By then, fortunately, cooler heads had started to prevail, and conspiracy theorists no longer believed the Gregorian Calendar was a papist plot to subvert the Church of England. So England, for one of the few times in its history decided to capitulate to everybody else, and the now 12 day distinction between the calendars was resolved. The day following Wednesday September 2, 1752 became September 14, 1752.

We should also celebrate the day as one of the longest lasting internet hoaxes. Everybody took the word of a cat for who made the name change to Presidents’ Day, or is it President’s Day?

In 1968, Congress passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed a law changing several federal holidays to always be celebrated on a Monday. In Washington’s case, it was changed to the 3rd Monday in February, despite some critics’ objection that such a date would never fall on the 22nd (or the 11th either but never mind that). There was another debate in Congress about renaming the holiday to President’s Day, implicitly honoring Washington, while others wanted to call it Presidents’ Day to honor all presidents. Nobody liked all our presidents however, and everybody still revered good old George, so that went nowhere.

It wasn’t until the last year of his presidency in 2000 that Bill Clinton officially proclaimed the holiday as Presidents’ Day. That irked Michael Storey, a humor columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In a satirical piece, the author’s cat is quoted as asserting that Richard Nixon had created a presidential proclamation changing the federal holiday’s name from “Washington’s Birthday” to “President’s Day” in 1971 when the law first took effect. That story was quoted nearly everywhere at internet speed, without of course the quoters noting that it was a humor column and the quote came from a cat. In 2000, the world wide web was still a toddler tripping over its untied shoelaces. Most newspapers still had no digital editions, and certainly there were no internet archives of digitized pre-2000 newspapers. There was no wikipedia, so it was a long time before anyone fact-checked that story. Many people believe it even now, just another thing to blame on Nixon, I suppose.

The moral of the story is to be careful what you say in jest on the web. I have lobbied the W3C organization for years to create a <sarcasm> html tag with no success. Until that shady standards body that controls your mind by setting the rules for what people mistakenly call the internet (It’s really only the world wide web. That’s what W3 stands for. The C is for consortium.)

By the way, I call the invention of fractions by the Ancient Egyptians the second pillar of mathematics. The third came from the great anonymous scholar who invented nothing, but that’s for another essay.

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