June 23, 2018
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How some presidents spent their birthdays

Gilbert Stuart | AP
Gilbert Stuart | AP
In this undated photo provided by Christie's, a circa 1820 painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart is shown.
By Lillian Cunningham, The Washington Post

What’s the deal with Presidents Day?

It started as a celebration of George Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22. But in the 1970s, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February to create more three-day weekends. Now we use it to honor all U.S. presidents.

To help kick off the celebration, The Washington Post’s Lillian Cunningham, host of the “Presidential” and “Constitutional” podcasts, shares her favorite facts about our leaders’ special days.

— George Washington never did much to celebrate his birthday. (When he was 28, he spent the day building a fence around his peach trees.) But as he got older and more distinguished, others would often throw celebrations for him. In 1778, during the Revolutionary War, a group of soldiers surprised their commander in chief by playing fife and drums outside his quarters at Valley Forge. And later, while president, balls were held in Washington’s honor — including one where, afterward, a young woman who was there wrote to her mother, “When he bowed to me, I could scarcely resist the impulse of my heart.”

— Thomas Jefferson was not a big fan of birthdays — a friend once recalled him saying that the only birthday he believed in celebrating was the nation’s, on the Fourth of July. In 1803, while president, Jefferson reiterated that distaste to his attorney general, writing: “I have declined letting my own birthday be known, and have engaged my family not to communicate it.”

— James Polk was the first president to turn 50 in office, but to say he celebrated the occasion would be a stretch. It didn’t dawn on Polk that it was his birthday until he was listening to a church sermon that day. Since then, only six other men have marked their half-century while president of the United States.

— For his 52nd birthday, Franklin Roosevelt hosted a toga party in the White House. He dressed as Caesar and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dressed as the Oracle of Delphi, with guests also donning white robes and Grecian headbands.

— Although three presidents (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe) have died on the Fourth of July, only one has been born on it: Calvin Coolidge.

— The most well-known presidential birthday celebration was probably John Kennedy’s 45th, which was celebrated at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and featured Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy birthday, Mr. President.” However, that party took place nearly two weeks before Kennedy’s actual birthday. The following year – the year of his assassination – Kennedy celebrated aboard a yacht on the Potomac River, which runs alongside Washington.

— While his father was serving as vice president, George W. Bush rang in his 40th birthday at the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs with friends — and a lot of drinking. The following morning, on his hungover jog through the mountains, he decided to give up alcohol entirely.

— Barack Obama is the most recent president to have turned 50 in office. He celebrated with an outdoor barbecue in the Rose Garden, followed by music and dancing in the White House.

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