the rambling boy
The celebration and lore of George Washington
By LONN TAYLOR
Monday was Presidents Day, a federal holiday designated by Congress to be celebrated on the third Monday in February by a law passed in 1968 called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, a law which reshuffled most of our holidays to create three-day weekends. When I was a child it was called Washington’s Birthday and it was celebrated on February 22 no matter what day of the week it fell on. In kindergarten we all made little hatchets out of colored construction paper to honor our first president, a reference to the legend that when he was 6 he cut down his father’s prize cherry tree and when his father asked who had done it said, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut it with my little hatchet.”
There is a difference in the United States between holidays and federal holidays. Holidays start with the people and eventually bubble up to the level of Congress to become federal holidays, which mean a day on which government offices are closed and if you work for the government you get the day off. We did not have federal holidays until 1870, when Congress created the first four. They were New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Washington’s Birthday was added in 1880, followed by Memorial Day in 1888, Labor Day in 1894, Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) in 1938, Columbus Day in 1968, and Martin Luther King Day in 1983.
But Washington’s Birthday was celebrated as a public holiday long before there were any federal holidays. Issac Weld reported from Philadelphia in 1796 that “On General Washington’s birth day, which was a few days ago, this city was unusually gay; every person in it, Quakers alone excepted, made it a point to visit the General on this day . . . . The Society of the Cincinnati, the clergy, the officers of the militia, and several others, who formed a distinct body of citizens, came by themselves separately. The foreign ministers attended in their richest dresses and most splendid equipages . . . . A public ball and supper terminated the rejoicings of the day.” Weld went on to say that “Not one town was there of any importance in the whole union where some meeting did not take place in honor of this day.” Clearly Washington’s birthday was a national holiday even in the general’s lifetime.
The date of George Washington’s birth is a complicated matter. Any encyclopedia will tell you that he was born on February 11, 1731 Old Style. That phrase “Old Style” is important because when Washington was born the British Empire still used the old Julian calendar, which was 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar adopted by Catholic Europe in 1582. On the Julian calendar the beginning of the new year was reckoned from March 25. Twenty years after Washington’s birth an act of parliament adopted the Gregorian calendar for all British realms and set New Year’s Day on January 1. The change was accomplished in September 1752; Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752. February 11, 1731 retroactively became February 22, 1732, and that is the date that Washington used during his later adult life and that we use today.
The hatchet and the cherry tree entered the picture from a biography of Washington published by a Virginia clergyman, Mason Locke Weems, better known as Parson Weems, in 1800. The book bore the ponderous title, “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington,” and many of the virtues and exploits it described were exaggerated or invented. The cherry tree incident, which Weems claimed to have heard from “an aged lady who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much time in the family,” was reprinted in the McGuffey readers, the standard elementary school reading textbooks for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and thus became part of our common American culture. It is the reason people eat cherry pie on Washington’s Birthday. No one knows whether it is true or not.
The cherry tree story prompted a slyly humorous painting by the American artist Grant Wood, showing Parson Weems pulling back a curtain trimmed with cherries to reveal the conversation between young George and his father, with George holding the hatchet and his father grasping the decimated cherry tree. The young Washington’s body. however, has grafted onto it the head of the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of the mature Washington, the model for the portrait on the dollar bill. Wood’s painting, done in 1939, is at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.
The biggest Washington’s Birthday blowout in the country is the one in Laredo, Texas. It was first organized in 1898 by a fraternal lodge called the Improved Order of Red Men and has grown to spread over two weekends. My friend San Antonio anthropologist Michaele Haynes, whose specialty is historical pageantry, has written extensively about the Laredo celebration because it conflates two separate American historical traditions. It involves the presentation of two sets of debutantes. On the first weekend 10 to 12 couples dressed as American Indians are presented in a pageant presided over by a young woman representing Pocahontas, who wears a buckskin dress covered with feathers and beads. The pageant ends with a “tribal dance celebrating the Great Spirit,” as Haynes describes it. The second weekend 13 young ladies and their escorts, representing the 13 original colonies and dressed in interpretations of colonial costumes, are presented at a pageant representing a social event of George Washington’s time, presided over by a prominent businessman dressed as George and a Laredo matron dressed as Martha Washington. Each pageant is followed by a ball, and there is a continual round of breakfasts, luncheons, and parties during the intervening week. The events are bi-national; families from both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are involved.
Haynes tells me that the celebration used to be opened with a mock battle on horseback between the Order of Red Men, dressed as Indians, and the Laredo city officials, dressed as the British. The battle ended with the officials turning the key to the city over to the leader of the Red Men, who handed it over to Pocahontas, who then led a parade through town on horseback. I definitely think this part of the celebration should be reinstated.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.