Feb 22, 2011

Remembering Washington's Birthday

This article originally ran last year and has been updated.

Today is George Washington’s Birthday. 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,” 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 must-have fashions for a song.

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.

Unfortunately, little remains of the original celebrations except in one corner of the city where Washington is celebrated as both namesake and mascot. Tonight (weather permitting), the students at George Washington University will mark Washington’s birth with a bonfire in GW’s University Yard, as part of a gala homecoming celebration. The party will include birthday cupcakes, period music, and a cherry pie eating contest.

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 never went to college and regretted it all his life. 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 that none would be denied a college education as he had been. 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 second 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.

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