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This portrait of George and Martha Washington is in the collection of the Merchant's House Museum

This portrait of George and Martha Washington and her grandchildren is in the collection of the Merchant’s House Museum

Time was when George Washington’s birthday, February 22, was a vigorously celebrated patriotic holiday. Here’s how Julia Lay, the wife of a New York City bookkeeper described the city in her diary entry of February 22, 1852:

A great demonstration. The bells were rung, cannons fired, and there was a general observance all over the city. Thousands of houses were illuminated and decorated with busts of Washington and flags were on house tops and steeples and parlor balconies.

Washington, “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen” was revered throughout the 19th century. In 1879, congress declared his birthday, February 22, a federal holiday.

But gradually the American Revolution and the founding receded into the distance, and the reverence the people felt for Washington in earlier years faded.

in 1968 George Washington’s birthday became a casualty of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, when an act of congress shifted the fixed dates of certain holidays to designated Mondays in order to give federal employees several three day weekends. Congress did not change the name to Presidents’ Day, but because the third Monday of February falls between Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and GW’s birthday (February 22), some people began calling it Presidents’ Day, and today it seems to be a holiday to honor all presidents. Which in effect honors none of them. (And I would suggest that not all of them are equally deserving of honor.) Let’s face it: today Presidents Day is really Shopping Day.

And ironically, the third Monday in February never falls on February 22, George Washington’s birthday.