Time was when George Washington’s birthday, February 22, was a vigorously celebrated patriotic holiday. Here’s how Julia Lay, the wife of a New York City bookkeeper described the city in her diary entry of February 22, 1852:
A great demonstration. The bells were rung, cannons fired, and there was a general observance all over the city. Thousands of houses were illuminated and decorated with busts of Washington and flags were on house tops and steeples and parlor balconies.
Washington, “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen” was revered throughout the 19th century. In 1879, congress declared his birthday, February 22, a federal holiday.
But gradually the American Revolution and the founding receded into the distance, and the reverence the people felt for Washington in earlier years faded.
in 1968 George Washington’s birthday became a casualty of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, when an act of congress shifted the fixed dates of certain holidays to designated Mondays in order to give federal employees several three day weekends. Congress did not change the name to Presidents’ Day, but because the third Monday of February falls between Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and GW’s birthday (February 22), some people began calling it Presidents’ Day, and today it seems to be a holiday to honor all presidents, which in effect really honors none of them.
The third Monday in February never falls on February 22, George Washington’s actual birthday.
This Month and next I am republishing former posts as I contemplate a refocusing of Hints and Echoes. This one was published on January 6, 2016.
Last night—January 5—marked the evening before Epiphany when the Biblical Kings reached the newborn Christ Child.
In medieval and Tudor England, Twelfth night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve or as we know it, Halloween. Now we don’t exactly celebrate a winter festival, but that period between Halloween and tonight is generally referred to as “the holidays.”
There’s a lot to love about “the holidays” : It’s a time of parties, parades, and family get togethers and gifting and big meals on fine china— a time of spiritual renewal, of counting our blessings, of communicating with old friends, of charitable impulse.But let’s face it; in many ways it is exhausting.
They used to indulge in raucous merrymaking on Twelfth Night. Most of us don’t feel quite up to that. But if you had a Christmas tree and haven’t already done so, now’s the time to take it down.
For the first two months of 2020, I will be republishing some of the posts from past years as I consider a refocusing of Hints and Echoes. This post was first published on New Year’s Eve, 2015. My best wishes to all for a healthy, happy New Year!
Tonight a million people will squeeze themselves into Times Square to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, and a billion more around the globe are expected to watch the event on television. The focus of their merriment will be an 11,785 pound ball of iron sheathed in Waterford Crystal mounted on a pole at the top of the building at 1 Times Square. A million voices in unison will count down the seconds before midnight as the ball descends the pole. Hopefully I will be sound asleep, although I can’t count on it.
For years I wondered how this custom ever got started. So last year, I looked it up and posted the history of the time ball. For those of you who missed it or want to read it again, here it is:
Once upon a time, time balls were prosaic navigational tools: wooden balls mounted on poles sitting atop a high point observable by ship captains peering through their telescopes.
Their purpose—to notify seamen of the exact time so that they could set their chronometers. At first, time balls were located on top of observatories where exact time was determined by celestial observation.
Here’s how it worked: A few minutes before one o’clock in the afternoon (12 noon in the United States), the ball was raised halfway up the pole. Then two or three minutes later the ball was raised all the way to the top. On the exact hour, the ball started its descent. The beginning of the drop signaled that it was now 1 p.m. (or noon). After the invention of the telegraph, a time signal could be sent to points distant and time balls were installed on the highest building in many cities and towns to enable people to set their watches. After the introduction of the radio, of course, time balls were no longer necessary.
So How Did a Time Ball Get to Times Square?
In 1904, Adolph Ochs , publisher of The New York Times, bought the building at what is now 1 Times Square. (At the time it was called Longacre Square, but Ochs convinced the City to rename it.) And to celebrate the New Year, he decided to have a fireworks display launched from the top of the building. That went on for three years, and a good time was had by all, but in 1907 the City banned the fireworks. Rather than give up the celebration, Ochs had the brilliant idea of installing a time ball that would designate exactly when the New Year arrived, and give revelers a reason to continue to celebrate in front of his building.
To maximize the merriment, the customary procedure of designating the time from the beginning of the descent was turned on its head. Now revelers began the countdown to midnight as the ball dropped. When it reached the bottom—the midnight hour had arrived and the New Year was born.
That first Times time ball was studded with 100 incandescent light bulbs. When the magic hour arrived, four electric signs—one on each side of the building—flashed “1908” in numerals six feet high. Since then, the ball has been modified many times. In 2000, to mark the millennnium, the Waterford Crystal ball was introduced. Today LED lighting technology makes possible a wide variety of spectacular effects.
Few time balls still exist; two of them are in the U.S.: one at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C and the other at the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at the South Street Seaport in New York City.
The Greenwich observatory time ball in London and the one at the Naval Observatory are operational; they still drop at the designated hour every day. The Times Square ball, on the other hand, has never served as a daily indicator of the time. It drops only once a year.
An old friend sent an email yesterday asking for my address. We moved last year and she had forgotten to enter our new address in her address book. She wanted to send me a Christmas card. That got me to thinking about Christmas cards and why they matter. She could have easily wished me a Merry Christmas in her email, but I am so glad she didn’t and I look forward to receiving her card.
Why, I wondered, do I care? Why is it that Christmas cards are really my favorite Christmas custom?
Here, I think, is the answer: Who we are, after all, depends on all the experiences we have ever had in life and that includes the interactions we have with our friends. Old or new or ongoing, our friends matter—a lot.
In fact we may not see them often; realistically we may know that we will never see many of them again. But we have not forgotten them, and when an envelope with a familiar handwriting appears in our mailbox, we know they have not forgotten us.
There may be a short note—or even a letter, though that is not often the case. But there will certainly be a signature .and we will have the opportunity of holding the hand of a friend in our hand and reflecting on our friendship and the times we have spent together. You can’t hold an email in your hand.
Sixteen years ago when a child sat at our Thanksgiving table, I wrote this children’s prayer. That little boy is now grown up; he’ll graduate from Lehigh University this spring, but we still say the prayer every Thanksgiving because we are still immensely grateful for these blessings.
At this time of Thanksgiving, we thank you for our many blessings:
We thank you especially for our family and our happy homes.
We thank you for giving us all the food we need and want to eat.
We thank you for nice clothes, a comfortable bed, hot water, and a warm house.
We thank you for doctors who help make us well when we are sick.
We thank you for teachers who help us learn,
We thank you for stories and poems, for paintings and plays, music, and dance.
We thank you for our country—for the brave men who had the idea for our nation in the first place, and for the brave men and women who fight for our freedoms and who promise to protect us from our enemies.
God bless us all. Help us always to do the right thing and to be grateful every single day.
May you and your loved ones enjoy good health and many blessings throughout the coming year.