George Washington to a friend, Tuesday, February 17, 1778

The British naturally love the tyranny of date-bound holidays.

Dear Sir,

I cannot help but be surprised, and yes, a little offended that you appear to have forgotten my birthday, which I of course celebrate on the third Monday of February. Ironically, I choose to celebrate my birthday on that day because it is so very simple to remember, much easier than a random number like 16 or 23.

That’s also why Martha and I celebrate our anniversary on New Year’s Eve and why we celebrate Christmas on the first Sunday in December. We decided not to have any children, because we would not be able to control when they were born and might end up with a child whose birthday was—heaven forbid!—July 19th, or something equally impossible to recall.  (April 24th springs to mind.)

Since you, sir, haven’t made arrangements for your friends to remember your birthday as I have, don’t expect a gift from yours truly.



p.s. If I’m not already dead by then, please kill me on January 1, 1800, for the sake of legions of future history students.


George Washington started a trend in American society to celebrate important dates by moving them to a different day, then pretending it was there the whole time. Though Washington’s hatred of dates and numbers of any kind is well known (he once famously stiffed a Philadelphia restaurant on a check because he felt the number 31.74 was “irredeemably ridiculous to look at.”), it’s less well-known how much he hated people forgetting his birthday. He once pantsed Ben Franklin in Constitution Hall for wishing him a happy “Mid-Feptsember’s Day,” and was known to delay meetings with foreign dignitaries by saying “isn’t there something special you’d like to say?” while clearing his throat and pointing at himself.

The most famous instance of someone moving a birthday was that of Janine Labor-Memorial, who decided to celebrate her birthday on the first Monday in September. When she realized it was making her children depressed because it meant the school year was starting, she decided to implement another celebration for her anniversary. She had gotten married on October 17th, but divorced her husband and remarried him on “sometime around May 31st, I dunno.” When Congress was looking to put a few more holidays on the calendar to prevent the working classes from rioting, they chose Ms. Labor-Memorial’s two days because, as Henry Cabot-Lodge put it, “Who the hell cares?”

An amusing story from the Constitutional convention arose because of Washington’s disdain for most numerical dates. When the committee was looking to set up a day for national elections, Governor Clinton of New York suggested making it November 1st. Washington launched into a tirade about how no one ever remembered if the day or month would come first, so you’d have people showing up to vote on both November 1st (11/1) and January 11th (1/11). When it was pointed out that they could always include the year, Washington called it all “tosh” and said “Who even talks about years? I’ll believe the Earth takes 365 days to go around the Sun when I see it with my own eyes.” After a few moments of confused silence, the committee decided on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, because, as Washington so correctly declared, “Who could possibly find that confusing?”


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