Feb 22, 2010

Happy Birthday George!

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 “President’s 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, and long lines began forming early in the morning at Hecht’s and Woodward & Lothrop, where you could pick-up an appliance 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. Area bakeries featured cherry pies in honor of Washington’s famous encounter with a cherry tree.

Today little remains of the original celebrations except in one corner of the city where Washington is celebrated as both namesake and mascot. Tonight, the students at George Washington University will celebrate Washington’s birth with a bonfire in GW’s University Yard. The party will include food, period music, and a cherry pie eating contest. Nominees for Mr. and Ms. GW will be introduced and there will be appearances by university mascots, the Colonial Army, GW band, and cheer team.

But in an ironic twist of history, American University owes more to George Washington for its founding 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 have a university established 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, eventually American University was established in Washington, D.C., 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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