Off The Record
New Year’s Day always means 1 January, right? Not necessarily, says Alan Crosby
Why New Year’s Day doesn’t always mean 1 January
For centuries, New Year’s Day has been marked by celebrations and festivities, as we welcome a new year in the middle of winter. For most people in Christian countries the first day of the year fell on 1 January, but until the 1750s there was in fact very considerable confusion over this very question.
The main reason was that the Church year – the ecclesiastical calendar – historically began on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would bear a child. This was considered vitally important, because it marked the date of the Incarnation. To start the year from the moment of Christ’s miraculous conception rather than the birth emphasised the event’s momentous nature.
Unfortunately, this method of reckoning the year did not coincide with the calendar months that had been established in the Roman calendar, and therein lay a large part of the confusion. In the medieval era, the Church was so closely connected with wider legal and administrative processes that 25 March was
‘In the Catholic countries, 10 days were cut out of the calendar in 1582’
inevitably the start of a range of other annual cycles, including the financial and accounting year.
This meant that the Church year ran from 25 to 24 March, but the calendar year ran from 1 January to 31 December: an overlap of almost three months. This produces some major confusions in dating events and documents. For instance, according to contemporary Church dating the execution of Charles I took place on 30 January 1648, but according to the calendar year it took place on 30 January 1649, the date we use today. Therefore many documents, and many historians, use a special notation to distinguish such overlaps – for example, his death might be dated 30 January 1648/1649.
However, there were further complications. Long before the 16th century it was apparent that the conventional year of 365 days with a leap year every four years was slightly too long to match the astronomical year based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The Julian Calendar (so called because it was introduced by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE) had become out of sync with the heavens. Over the centuries a surplus of 10 days had accumulated. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered a reform, to bring the astronomical and earthly calendars back in line. In the Catholic countries, which followed the Papacy, 10 days were cut out of the calendar, so that 4 October was followed by 15 October.
Protestant countries flatly refused to go along with this. The lack of synchronisation grew worse, and in Britain it was not until 1751 that legislation was passed to abolish the Julian Calendar and adopt the Gregorian Calendar. By that time the discrepancy amounted to 11 days, so 2 September was followed by 14 September in 1752. In addition, it was decreed that throughout the British dominions 1 January would be the official start of the year. At last, New Year’s Day was officially confirmed – although Scotland, being more progressive, had officially adopted 1 January back in 1599!
Unfortunately, the financial and accounting year began on 25 March, and it was deemed impossible for this to be realigned so that it began on 1 January. Too costly, too complicated, too many vested interests. But 11 days had been lost, so the day that would have been 25 March 1753 was in fact 5 April 1753. No matter – the Government’s accountants decided that henceforth their financial year would begin on 6 April. So our tax year runs until 5 April because that, altered by the change in calendar 267 years ago, was the date on which the Church began its ecclesiastical calendar. Lovably eccentric, just daft, or totally infuriating? You take your pick!
ALAN CROSBY lives in Lancashire and is the editor of The Local Historian