Off The Record

New Year’s Day al­ways means 1 Jan­uary, right? Not nec­es­sar­ily, says Alan Crosby

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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