How Presidents Really Spend Birthdays — Hint: Not shopping

The President’s Day sales have ended, which means we’ve moved past the celebration of several U.S. Presidents on the third Monday of February. While this blog has previously shared several presidents’ lack of enthusiasm for birthday pomp and circumstance, a Washington Post columnist this year shared some great findings about just how nonplussed these guys were with their birthdays each year.

Consider George Washington: When he turned 28, he spent his birthday building a fence around his peach trees). As he got more distinguished, though, others couldn’t resist celebrating him. At his 46th birthday, a group of Revolutionary War soldiers surprised him by playing fife and drums outside his quarters at Valley Forge. One hopes the enemy was not within earshot (talk about giving away your location!).

T.J. — the man of the tall hat — wasn’t a big birthday fan either.  He reportedly said the only birthday he believed in celebrating was the nation’s. Jefferson wrote the Attorney General while president declining to let his “birthday be known” and stating he had also “engaged [his] family not to communicate it.”

Modern Presidents Embrace the Pomp 

At least FDR embraced some fun while in the White House. For his 52nd birthday, Franklin Roosevelt hosted a toga party and dressed as Caesar. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt dressed as the Oracle of Delphi, and other guests wore white robes and Grecian headbands.

FDR was also honored by 52 dancing girls carrying electrical candles and making themselves into the shape of a cake before singing Happy Birthday.

John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday also prompted a big celebration in New York City’s Madison Square Gardens. One of the most memorable moments was Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of Happy Birthday Mr. President. Her dress also garnered attention — she had to be literally sewn into the backless gown she wore in front of 15,000 guests (Mrs. Kennedy was noticeably absent).

JFK, onstage afterwards, said: “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”

Bill Clinton brought his 50th birthday festivities to New York as well, with a celebration cum Democratic fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall. The event raised $10 million for the party in 1996.

President Barack Obama was a bit more moderate when he celebrated his own milestone birthday at the White House. He celebrated turning 50 with an outdoor barbecue in the Rose Garden followed by music and dancing. The guest list did include some luminaries, though: Rapper Jay-z and actor Tom Hanks attended and Stevie Wonder provided a serenade.

Founding Fathers didn’t want birthday pomp


Many Americans eagerly anticipate and happily welcome the President’s Day holiday. Commemorated since 1971 on the third Monday of February, this federal holiday recognizes George Washington, the first president of the United States.

Ironically, it cannot possibly land on his actual birthday since he was actually born on February 22, 1732. There’s no way the third Monday in February can ever be the 22nd (thanks for pointing that out).

Pomp Harrumph

But even more entertaining to me is the fact that the Founding Fathers were against pomp and circumstance that fostered a cult of personality. After all, the lavish celebrations of the monarchs in Europe were one of the things they were railing about in their revolution.

“Formalities and ceremonies are an abomination in my sight. I hate them in Religion, Government, Science and Life,” John Adams wrote to Jefferson (as cited in Lewis, 1976, p. out of print book on birthdays that I love).

Jefferson in turn wrote to James Madison of his concern over the pending excitement over Washington’s birthday:

A great ball is to be given here (Philadelphia) on the 22nd, and in other great towns of the Union. This is, at least, very indelicate, and probably excites uneasy sensations in some. I see in it, however, this useful deduction, that the birthdays which have been kept, have been, not those of the President, but of the General. (as cited in Lewis, 1976, p. 94)

Presidential Tradition Today

Still, it is not the General’s last words but rather the president’s farewell address that is read in the United States Senate every year in observance of his birthday — a tradition first started in 1862.

Nevertheless, those founding fathers worrying themselves about a presidential cult of personality fostered by birthdays needn’t have worried in the long run. After all, Presidents Day today is cause for a day off to shop great deals on mattresses, discounted cars and furniture sets.

Presidents Day sales are common across the United States and many Americans associate the holiday with vehicle sales because of the prevalence of discounted prices at car dealerships available during the Presidents Day weekend. More birthday marketing!