Thursday, February 19, 2009

The First President’s Birthday

By: Gwen Miner, Supervisor of Domestic Arts Washington’s Birthday -- as in George our First President -- was first celebrated publicly at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Celebrations of his birthday were quite common from this time throughout the 19th century. His birthday was celebrated with orations, balls and formal dinners where men drank toasts to political leaders and causes. Birthday Balls to honor the “Father of our Country” began while Washington was still in office and evolved rapidly into an excuse for general revelry, dancing and toasting in the local tavern. Adults of all ages, city and country, attended these “birthday parties” as opportunities for communal celebration. Washington Cake was traditionally served along with punches (alcoholic concoctions of at least 5 different alcohols). The first official birthday ball was held in Alexandria, Virginia, but the tradition still holds today. Historians recognize Washington’s Birthday as February 22. Initially, this specific date was a nationally recognized holiday. In fact, it became the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen when, in 1885, President Chester Arthur signed a bill making it a federal holiday. In 1968, the draft of the Uniform Holidays Bill proposed to rename the holiday to President’s Day to honor both Washington and Lincoln, but the proposal failed in committee. The bill as passed kept the name Washington’s Birthday. On January 1, 1971 the holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act placed every federal holiday on a Monday, including Washington’s Birthday. Several States have officially renamed their Washington’s Birthday observances as “Presidents Day,” but on a federal level and in many states the day is still officially observed as Washington’s Birthday. Want to make your own Washington Cake or Punch for the holiday? Make sure to stay tuned for my next blog entry for recipes and instructions.
top: Freeman’s Journal, February 19, 1848. NYSHA Library.
bottom: Library of Congress—Broadside—call number: Portfolio 124, folder 5, digID 12400500

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