Two birthdays? – Caesar, pope factor in Washington’s day |

Two birthdays? – Caesar, pope factor in Washington’s day

Today is the Presidents Day holiday and with it comes a piece of trivia.

The only U.S. president to have had two official birth dates is “The Father of Our Country,” who was really born on Feb. 11, 1732, not Feb. 22, as we have always been led to believe. Efficiently, we have lumped his birthday celebration with that of the Great Emancipator, Feb. 12, and called it “Presidents Day.” I suppose that’s an economic way to acknowledge all United States presidents from Washington forward.

To explain: George Washington was 20 years old in 1752 when America finally got around to adopting the Gregorian Calendar that the rest of the world had been using for some 270 years. Seems that in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII corrected a day-keeping error that had unknowingly plagued the world since the year 46 B.C.E.

Let’s backtrack.

Now, the period of one day from sunrise to sunset is easily understood, but the period of one month from new moon to new moon is not quite so simple; it requires some skill in astronomy to tell how many days intervene between one new moon and the next.

The arrangements of the months and days in the year was not always so easy. The ancients found it a puzzling task, and it was never correctly performed until just before the common era.

If a lunar month contained exactly four weeks, or 28 days, there would be 13 such months in a year and one day left over! There are 52 weeks and one extra day in our solar year; hence if any day of the month, such as the Fourth of July or Christmas, falls on a Monday in any year, it will come on a Tuesday the next year and so on, except in a leap year, when the jump is from Monday to Wednesday, etc.

The early Greeks observed correctly that a lunar month contains about 291Ú2 days and so they tried to make a year consisting of 12 months, some with 29 days and some with 30. The same thing was tried by the Romans. The attempts resulted in a year with 355 days, which was some 10 days too short.

Enter Julius Caesar, who in 46 B.C.E. undertook to put an end to this confusion. Astronomers had found that the true length of the year is about 365 1/4 days, the time it took for the earth to travel around the sun.

So Julius added 10 days to the old-fashioned year, distributing them so as to make four months with 30 days and seven with 31; while he left February with 28, this made 365 days, and in order to provide for the fraction (1/4) he directed that every fourth year an extra day should be added to February, thus making what we call leap year.

This became the Julian Calendar, and it ended the confusion. However, a thousand years later a correction was necessary. It seems unused days had been accumulating and Julius’ year was 11 minutes and 12 seconds too long. In adding an extra day every four years he added an additional 44 minutes and 48 seconds.

Now then, in a century some 18 extra hours had accumulated and in a thousand years it had grown to almost a week! What to do?

Along comes Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, with what turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Under the Julian interpretation, all centurial (a year divisible by four) years were leap years. Gregory decreed that henceforth only each fourth centurial year should be a leap year. Popes could do that in those days; decree world altering things, that is!

Thus, the years 1600, 2000, 2400, etc., should have 366 days, but 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100, etc. should have only 356 days. This got to be quite confusing. Gregory then took a fresh start and dropped 10 days.

The day after Oct. 4, 1582, was called Oct. 15, 1582. Thus Gregory changed Old Style (Julian) to New Style (Gregorian). His calendar was so nearly accurate that the remaining error will not amount to a day until 5200 A.D.

The New Style was immediately adopted in all Roman Catholic countries, but America lagged in the rear and used Old Style until 1752, when it finally fell in line.

According to this change, George Washington’s real birthday was moved from Feb. 11, 1732, to Feb. 22, 1732. He was 20 years old when he was forced to adopt Feb. 22 as his new birth date. There is no record of any objection on his part. So, George, happy birthday, twice this month!

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User