GEORGE WASHINGTON'S Birthday has long been celebrated by parades and balls. For so long, in fact, that the Father of His Country even danced at some of them.

Washington was a unique political figure, says Professor Karal Ann Marling of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. "The title 'Father of His Country' was used during his lifetime, even before his tenure as president," Marling says, as Colonial Americans looked for a symbol of their new nation. "And his birthday was celebrated with balls and fireworks while he was alive. He even attended some of the balls."

Later, a century after the Revolution, Washington's stature as American Myth began taking on new dimensions, with the building of monuments to him in and around the capital, with groups using his name to endorse their causes, and with countless towns, inns and homeowners claiming the first president spent some time with them.

Marling, author of George Washington Slept Here, an examination of Washington's impact on all facets of American society, to be published in September by Harvard University Press, says that since his death, Washington has permeated every aspect of American society -- its politics, economics, moral standards and such domestic areas as architecture and interior design.

"Washington was such a revered figure even before he was president that Gilbert Stuart came back from Europe to paint his portraits," Marling says. "Stuart called the paintings his 'dollar bills.' And Washington cooperated in perpetuating the myth: He posed for the paintings."

Washington's role in the Revolutionary and post- Revolutionary era was as a symbol of national unity, the rallying point for a new nation. In the mid-1800s when the nation began to take sides over the issue of slavery, Marling says, statues of Washington were erected around the country, North and South, to help push the unity theme: Don't divide the nation Washington helped build.

The North-South rift even spread to Washington's bones. "There was a plan to move the bones from Mount Vernon to a mausoleum on the Mall where the monument is today," Marling says. "But the Southern senators were incensed at the notion his body should be moved to what could be 'enemy' territory. This was a bitter issue in the 15 years or so before the Civil War. The plan to move the body was blocked, and the monument plan was then adopted."

The bones settlement and the statues were not enough to prevent the Civil War. Jefferson Davis, in fact, took his oath as president of the Confederacy in front of the statue of Washington in Richmond.

It was after the Civil War, while the nation was again seeking unity, that Washington took on a broader role in American life. It all began at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, a celebration of the nation's 100th birthday.

The exposition was planned to highlight the industrial accomplishments of America, but a simple display became the star of the festival. Washington's military clothes, campaign tents, his field gear and assorted househeld items from Mount Vernon were arranged in a small booth. The public reaction was quick and reverential.

"There is certainly no exhibit in the entire exposition," reported Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, "which is so calculated to rouse our feelings of national pride and to thrill our hearts with memories of the days of '76 as this one."

"Washington's breeches," as the exhibit became known, touched off a new surge of interest in Washington memorabilia, Marling says, one that affected American politics, civic pride, architecture and furniture.

Thirteen years after the Centennial exposition, Marling says, the old-line power structure of the nation -- "The 400, the Knickerbocker crowd" -- decided to commemorate the centennial of Washington's inauguration with an expensive and lavish reenactment of the event, with President Benjamin Harrison starring as Washington. "The old-line money interests used the celebration to justify their power and attack the growing influence of immigrants -- the Irish and Tammany Hall," Marling says.

The interest in Washington continued during the 1930s, when the nation celebrated the bicentennial of his birth in 1932. The federal government, joining in the spirit, even published an atlas listing all the places where Washington is known to have set foot.

Today, Marling says, Washington has a "role that is both minimal and profound. He is used as a symbol -- trustworthiness, honesty -- of commercial transactions. People laugh at the 'I cannot tell a lie' myth, but the flip side is that reverence for 18th-century style, particularly during the Reagan administration, has brought back stately government." As evidence for her theme, Marling notes that Reagan has held a number of meetings with foreign leaders in Williamsburg, the restored Colonial capital.

The claims that "George Washington slept here" began after the 1876 Exposition, the professor says. "There was a tremendous interest {among the states}, an obsession with whether Washington slept somewhere in their state. The restoration of historic houses also started then, beginning with military offices he used in Morristown, New Jersey, and Valley Forge.

"I have found several thousand claims that George slept here or there," Marling says. Most, she says, are not true.

Part of this is attributable to the delay in the public's transference of their affection for Washington to the buildings he used. The first presidential residences -- in New York City and Philadelphia -- did not survive the years, despite the interest in Washington. Mount Vernon was a different case, she says, for Washington was intimately connected with it. Fifty-six years after Washington's death in 1800, a former Massachusetts congressman and governor named Edward Everett gave speeches to help the Mount Vernon Ladies Association raise $200,000 to buy and restore Washington's estate. The effort succeeded, and two years later the association bought Mount Vernon, which it operates today.

The number of homes or inns that hosted Washington are few, for he often refused the offer of free lodging. Washington, in a letter to New York Gov. George Clinton on March 25, 1789, just five weeks before he became president, wrote:

"With very great sensibility I have received the honor of your letter dated the 10th instant, and consider the kind and obliging invitation to your house, until suitable accommodations can be provided for the President, as a testimony of your friendship and politeness, of which I shall every retain a grateful sense. But if it should be my lot (for Heaven knows it is not my wish) to appear again in a public Station, I shall make it a point to take hired lodgings, or Rooms in a Tavern until some House can be provided. Because it would be wrong, in my real Judgment, to impose such a burden on any private family, as must unavoidably be occasioned by my company: and because I think it would be generally expected, that, being supported by the public at large, I should not be burdensome to Individuals."

IN WASHINGTON'S FOOTSTEPS

So where in the region did George Washington sleep or visit? Many of the places he visited no longer exist or cannot be located. Some are private homes that are not open to the public. The battlefields on which his armies fought most often were just temporary encampments. But here's a list of places nearby where you can catch Washington's spirit.

GEORGE WASHINGTON'S BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL MONUMENT --

This restored Colonial farm in Washington's Birthplace, Virginia, is where Washington was born in 1732 and where his parents are buried. The Visitors' Center offers an orientation film and exhibits. Staff members of the house and farm, dressed in period costumes, hold demonstrations of Colonial crafts. Wooded walkways allow visitors to walk along Popes Creek to the restored home and gardens. The farm is 40 miles east of Fredericksburg. Take I-95 south to Route 17 east to Route 3 east to Washington's Birthplace. It is open 9 to 5 every day but Christmas and New Year's. Free.

FREDERICKSBURG --

Legend has it that the young George Washington threw a dollar across the Potomac. Actually, he threw it across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, a much smaller stream. The Washington family name is attached to several buildings in Fredericksburg. Kenmore, an 18th-century mansion, was built around 1752 by Washington's sister, Betty, and her husband, Col. Fielding Lewis. George Washington was a frequent overnight visitor there. Kenmore (703/373-3381) is at 1201 Washington Avenue. The Mary Washington House, the home Washington bought in 1772 for his widowed mother, still has the sundial in its garden that George consulted during his overnight stays. The house (703/373-1569) is at 1200 Charles Street. The Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop displays medicines and a doctor's office of the 18th century. Dr. Mercer was encouraged to come to Fredericksburg by his old friend from the French-Indian Wars, George Washington. The shop (703/373-3362) is at 1020 Caroline Street. The Rising Sun Tavern at 1306 Caroline Street was built by Washington's brother Charles in 1760 as a home. Charles later gave the building to his son, Augustine, who turned it into a tavern (703A371-1494). George is known to have visited, but not to have slept there. All the buildings are open 10 to 4 daily through February, from 9 to 5 daily March to November. Admission is charged.

ALEXANDRIA is full of buildings associated with Washington. The Ramsay House at 221 King Street was where George stopped for breakfast with his friend William Ramsay on his way to Philadelphia to accept the commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The house (838-4200) is now Alexandria's official Visitors' Center, open 9 to 5 daily. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop (today a museum and antique store at 105-107 S. Fairfax Street) sold medications and herbs two centuries ago to the Washingtons. The shop is open from 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday. Gadsby's Tavern Museum at 134 N. Royal Street was a favored restaurant and nightspot for the First Couple. The museum is open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday; the tavern (838-4242) serves lunch and dinner every day. Another favored Washington dining spot was the Lee-Fendall House at 614 Oronoco Street (548-1789), open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 Sunday. The George Washington Masonic National Monument at 101 Callahan Drive has items related to Washington's membership in the Masons, a trowel he used to place the cornerstone of the Capitol, and a museum. It is open 9 to 5 except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. Free. 683-2007. Washington worshipped at Christ Church, at Cameron and North Washington streets. The church is open Monday through Saturday 9 to 5, Sunday 2 to 4:30. The Old Presbyterian Meeting House, 321 S. Fairfax Street, was where Washington's funeral oration was held in December, 1799. It is open 9 to 4 Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday.

LAUREL, MARYLAND --

Montpelier Mansion, a 1780 Georgian building, is where Washington rested a few times, though not always comfortably. On May 5, 1787, Washington noted in his diary: "feeling very severely a violent headache and sick stomach and went to bed early." Montpelier is undergoing renovation and will reopen March 6, with tours noon to 3:15 Sundays. Muirkirk Road, Laurel. 953-1376.

WASHINGTON, D.C. --

The Museum of American History is displaying Washington's military tent, his campaign table and chair, his mess chest and one of his uniforms in the Armed Forces Hall on the third floor. The museum is at 14th and Constitution, and is open 10 to 5:30 daily.

MOUNT VERNON -- Open from 9 to 4 November through February, 9 to 5 March through October. Admission is free on Monday, the national holiday. 780-2000.

WILLIAMSBURG --

Washington represented, at different times, Frederick and Fairfax counties in the General Assembly of Virginia before the Revolution. From his diaries, it is known that he stayed or dined in a number of still-existing homes in Colonial Williamsburg. Ayscough's, a small tavern on the southwest corner of Capitol Square, was one; today the tavern is called the Asycough House and houses the gunsmith shop. Mrs. Campbell's, one of three sites that was operated as a tavern at different times by Christiana Campbell, was another. It is now the James Anderson House on Duke of Gloucester Street, and houses archeological finds from the Williamsburg area. Washington also took meals and perhaps lodged at The Raleigh tavern, now also an exhibition building on Duke of Gloucester Street. Mrs. Vobe's, a tavern behind the capitol on Waller Street, was mentioned as a dining spot by Washington. This tavern is the current Christiana Campbell's Tavern. Wetherburn's, a recently restored tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street across from the Raleigh, is noted in Washington's ledger entry for April 1, 1756: "exps. at Weatherbns. {sic} 25/10" and at other times. Henry Wetherburn operated this tavern from 1746 to 1760. When Robert Anderson operated it later, Washington's diaries noted that he dined there four times and spent 10 evenings. Today Wetherburn's is an exhibition building. CELEBRATING GEORGE

Here's a list of activities celebrating the birthday of George Washington:

ALEXANDRIA

FRIDAY --

"The Poor Soldier," an opera that was one of Washington's favorites, at 8 p.m. at Gadsby's Tavern, Alexandria. $12.50 and $15. No ticket sales at the door. 838-4200.

SATURDAY --

SUNDAY --

American and British military units begin setting up an 18th-century encampment at Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site at 10. Battle reenactment at 2 p.m. Living history demonstrations, 10 to 4. Free. 4301 West Braddock Road. 838-4200. "A Grand Federal Entertainment," a major opera hit of the early American stage, at 8 at Gadsby's Tavern. $12.50 and $15. 838-4200.

MONDAY --

George Washington Birthday Parade in Alexandria, 178 units, starting at 1 p.m. at Wilkes and St. Asaph and continuing north on St. Asaph to Queen. From there the parade will go east to Royal, south to King, east to Fairfax and then on to Market Square. The Visitors' Center will offer guided walking tours emphasizing Washington's contribution to the city's history. 10:30 a.m. and 11. $3 adults, $1.50 children 6 to 17. 838-4200.

FEBRUARY 19 --

"Thomas and Sally," an 18th-century opera, at 8 p.m. Gadsby's Tavern. $12.50 and $15. 838-4200.

FEBRUARY 20 --

The opera "The Poor Soldier," at 8 at Gadsby's Tavern. $12.50 and $15. 838-4200.

FEBRUARY 21 --

Wreath-laying at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, 1 p.m. Free.

FEBRUARY 28 --

George Washington Birthday Celebration Fashion Promenade, with clothes spanning the years from 1750 to 1863. 3 p.m. Free. Lyceum, 201 S. Washington Street. 838-4200.

A taped message giving information on all George Washington Birthday events in Alexandria can be heard by calling 838-5005.

FREDERICKSBURG

MONDAY --

Six of the city's major historic attractions open for tour at half-price admission. The Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, the Rising Sun Tavern, Mary Washington House, Kenmore, James Monroe Museum and Belmont will be open 10 to 4. 703/373-1776.

FEBRUARY 22 --

Mary Washington House Birthday Party celebration recalls George's visits to his mother's house. 10 to 4. Admission. 703/373-1569.

GEORGE WASHINGTON'S BIRTHPLACE

FEBRUARY 22 --

Free tours, 11 to 5. 804/224-1732. Route 3, Washington's Birthplace, Virginia.

MONTPELIER

FEBRUARY 21 --

A George Washington Musicale, a concert of chamber music, will be presented at 3 p.m. Free. Muirkirk Road, Laurel, Maryland. 953-1376.

MOUNT VERNON

MONDAY --

Open House. Special events include a wreath laying and ceremony at Washington's tomb. The open house is from 9 to 4. The wreath laying is at 10, followed by a fife and drum corps presentation and a Colonial troop muster. Free. 780-2000.

WASHINGTON D.C.

MONDAY

-- Reading of Washington's Farewell Address at noon in the Senate. Free, but you will need to get a free gallery pass from the office of your senator or representative.

FEBRUARY 22 --

Wreath-laying at the Washington Monument. 11 a.m. Free.

WILLIAMSBURG

SATURDAY --

Washington Emphasis Tours, 2 p.m. daily, Colonial Williamsburg. Military review, presided over by "Mr. Washington," 4 p.m.

SUNDAY --

Palace Ball, 7 p.m. $5. 804/229-1000, ext. 2750.

WINCHESTER

FEBRUARY 20, 21, 22 --

Open house celebrates Washington's years spent in this city as a surveyor. George Washington's Office Museum, Cork and Braddock streets. Free, 1 to 5. 703/662-6550.

MARYLAND SUBURBS

SUNDAY --

The 27th annual Washington's Birthday Marathon, sponsored by the D.C. Road Runners Club, starting at the NASA recreation center in Greenbelt and winding through the grounds of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. 10:30. $10 registration. 474-9362.

FEBRUARY 27 --

A George Washington's Birthday 5K race at 10 at the Bay Hills Community Center in Arnold. 301/266-1165.

Special thanks are extended to John P. Riley, research assistant/archivist of Mount Vernon, and John E. Ingram, curator of library special collections at Colonial Williamsburg.