I am a Scrooge when it comes to Presidents Day: Bah, humbug!
When I was in school we got two—count ‘em, two—days off in February, one for Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and the other for Washington’s on February 22. Their actual birthdays were the actual holidays.
Then in 1971, our federal government decreed that most federal holidays would be celebrated on a Monday. A three-day weekend was nice enough for those of us in school or working in traditional office jobs – but it kind of took the wind out of the birthdays of two of our greatest presidents. I think the holidays had more meaning when they were celebrated separately.
What a relief that they didn’t change the date of Independence Day. Imagine celebrating the Fourth of July on July 2 or July 6! (Want to learn more? Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays column explores the strange history of Presidents Day.)
It’s still Washington’s Birthday
When I was doing research for this piece, I was astonished to learn that the official name of the holiday is still Washington’s Birthday. How would old George feel to know that his birthday is now always on a Monday? And how would old Abe feel knowing that he is officially ignored altogether?
I think Lincoln has always been my favorite president. He preserved the Union through a disastrous civil war. He was responsible for the passage of the crucial 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, even though it wasn’t ratified until after his death.
When I was younger I didn’t see nearly as much to admire in Washington. A great general, yes. Our first president? Big deal. Then in 1984 (was it really 30 years ago?) there was a wonderful TV mini-series about Washington starring Barry Bostwick. And I realized just how hard a task he faced as our first president.
George kept us together
We may have been “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as Lincoln would put it fourscore and seven years later. But in 1776, and even in 1789 when Washington was elected (by the Congress, not We the People), who knew what that meant? Some of the early Americans actually wanted to make Washington our king! Luckily he would have none of that! The new nation could have easily fallen apart in its early years; indeed there were a number of rebellions against the infant federal government. It was Washington’s leadership that kept us from foundering.
Plus I’ve had a soft spot in my heart ever since George Washington helped me win second place on Jeopardy! 10 years ago. (My one and only game was broadcast on April 2, 2004.)
I was getting creamed by the guy who won that game by a wide margin and who went on to win about eight more. And due to a couple of stupid mistakes, I was in third place going into Final Jeopardy, which was in the category George Washington. The “answer” was this: “In 1798, George wrote to John Greenwood, a man in this profession, ‘I am …ready to pay what ever you may charge me.’”
I was no expert on GW. But I did know that George was famous for his ill-fitting wooden false teeth. So I guessed, “What is a dentist?” I was right! And I was the only one of the three contestants who got it right, salvaging a little bit of the ego that had been bruised by how poorly I’d performed in the game and moving me ahead of the third person.
A pie for two presidents
I promised you another pie recipe this week from Sweetie-licious Pies by Michigan pie-meistress Linda Hundt. This cherry apple pie is appropriate for both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays because it’s an apple and cherry pie. Apparently Abraham Lincoln loved pies, especially apple. And of course we all know the myth about George Washington copping to chopping down his father’s cherry tree (first recorded in a book about Washington by Mason Locke Weems). What better excuse can there be to eat cherry pie every February?