Today’s post comes from Tom Putnam, Acting Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries.
In a recent conversation with a younger colleague about Presidents Day, I mentioned that while I appreciated the three-day weekend, I missed celebrating George Washington’s actual birthday and eating cherry pie.
“Cherry pie?” she asked. “Why cherry pie?”
The tradition stems, of course, from the famous (and likely apocryphal) story told by Mason “Parson” Weems in The Life and Memorable Actions of Washington—a biography published in 1800 shortly after Washington’s death. A moralistic tale depicting his many virtues, the book included the story of how as a young boy George Washington could not tell a lie and admitted to his father that he had chopped down a young cherry tree.
Weems’s source, he claimed, was a distant relative who spent time with the Washington family as a young girl. While the tale cannot be proved or disproved, it is true that Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery contains family recipes for preserving and cooking with cherries.
And through the centuries, public lore continues to associate George Washington with the cherry fruit. At the elementary school I attended, cherry pie was served at lunch the day before the holiday. And on Washington’s Birthday itself, it was my family’s evening dessert.
Before 1971, Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on February 22 no matter what day of the week it fell. The tradition began in 1879, when Congress decreed that all government offices in the District of Columbia would close to mark Washington’s birth.
But in the late 1960s, Congress determined it would be better to celebrate the holiday on a Monday, creating a three-day weekend, on a date in February that fell between Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. (You can read the full story in this Prologue article by C. L. Arbelbide.)
Though the name of the holiday was never officially changed, over time it morphed in our popular culture from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day, which then became fodder for advertisers to market blowout sales at mattress and car dealerships.
While eating cherry pie and recounting a story from Washington’s youth that was likely untrue are odd traditions on which to hang one’s hat—I hold on to these childhood memories of a moment when the country paused to extol the character of our first President.
In school we were told of his bravery, integrity, and honor. And we were encouraged to follow his model as “the father of our country.”
I do not recall how old I was—though it was likely past my grade school years—when I understood the significance of Washington’s decision to voluntarily relinquish power and his many efforts to ensure that our fragile new republic long endured.
We were reminded as children that unlike the kings and queens of England, from which we had declared our independence, we lived in a democracy where any citizen could be elected President of the United States.
Washington was our secular role model—and celebrating his birth was part of the glue that united us as Americans.
Today our system of modern Presidential libraries engage their communities over Presidents Day weekend with special programming, speakers, and family festivals.
For years I attended those events at the Kennedy Library, where I once worked, and was always heartened by multiple generations coming to the library to share stories and lessons from our common history.
Despite their political differences, what unites all of our Presidents is their service and dedication to our country. And we hope by creating “Presidential” memories in those who visit our libraries and museums and participate in our programs—on Presidents Day or any day through the years—that we are helping to pass along the values we hold dear to generations who follow.
While we may not all eat cherry pie this Presidents Day—we can pause to reflect on the fundamental truths on which our country was founded. They remain the essential glue that connect us a people.
Please share your memories of President’s Day and your family’s tradition (past and present) to mark Washington’s birthday.