Today is George Washington’s birthday. And for those of us located a few short steps from Mount Vernon and our nation’s capital, the date holds a special place in our hearts.
Along with Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th, February 22nd used to be a federal holiday and a day off from school. Until the creation of a more generic “Presidents’ Day” in 1971, the shortest month of the year was distinguished by having two full vacation days honoring presidents.
In the past, DC celebrated Washington’s Birthday with the best sales of the year. Long lines formed early in the morning at Hecht’s and Woodward & Lothrop, where you could pick-up an appliance, a rug, or last season’s fashions for a song. Somehow the Presidents’ Day "cyber" sales don’t seem the same.
Before February 22nd became just another day, school children prepared for the holiday by cutting out presidential silhouettes and reading stories extolling Washington’s honesty and heroism. And area bakeries featured cherry pies in honor of Washington’s famous encounter with a cherry tree.
Sadly, little remains of the original celebrations except in one corner of the city where Washington is celebrated as both namesake and mascot.
In 1904, the Columbian University became what is now known as The George Washington University. School colors were changed from orange and blue to buff and blue to honor the uniform George Washington wore when he resigned as Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783.
Tonight (weather permitting), the students at George Washington University will mark Washington’s Birthday with a bonfire. This longstanding tradition draws hundreds to GW’s University Yard and includes a ceremonial procession, lighting of the bonfire, colonial-era music, hot drinks, and an opportunity to roast marshmallows for s’mores.
But in an ironic twist of history, American University probably owes more to George Washington than GW. According to Kenneth Davis, author of Don’t Know Much about George Washington, our first president regretted never having the opportunity to attend college. As a result, one of his pet projects was to establish a university in the capital that would be open to all American citizens, so no one would be denied a college education. Although Washington never lived to see his dream come true, American University was founded as a direct result of his efforts.
So as you reach for a slice of cherry pie, remember that two local universities have reason to celebrate Washington’s Birthday—one owing its founding and the other its name to our first president.