Happy New Year (Again!)


philtransfeb1682-3-small.gifSo, did anyone head out to any New Year’s Eve parties last night? Not surprising, I suppose, since the New Year has been happening on January 1 in many parts of the world for quite some time. Exactly how long depends on what country you’re in.

The early Romans considered March 1 the first day of the year, which is why September, October, November, and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th month respectively. In 153 B.C.E, however, the New Year was set at January 1. Even though that’s the same date that many people use today, its adoption (like that of the Gregorian Calendar) wasn’t completely straightforward.

Apparently ringing in the New Year has always has a particularly celebratory aspect to it: in 567 the Council of Trent was dismayed at all the wild partying that was happening along with the holiday, and decided that the Roman January 1 New Year was a bad (pagan) idea.

(Image shared under the GNU Free Documentation license)

For a long time after that, different countries used different dates to ring in the New Year. Russia, for example, used March 1 from 988 until 1492 and then switched to September 1. Many Christian countries chose the day of the New Year to coincide with something significant in the life of Jesus. Some countries (like German and England until the 13th century) started the New Year on Christmas. Some countries started the New Year on January 1 — perhaps not so much because of the Roman calendar as because, being eight (inclusive) days after Christmas, it’s the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. Some countries started on Easter (as the Council of Tours recommended in 755). And finally, some countries (like most of Europe in the Middle Ages) used March 25 because it was the Feast of the Annunciation — the day that Jesus was conceived (if that’s the right word to use).

Around the same time that countries were switching to the Gregorian calendar, they were changing the start of their New Years to all begin on January 1. According to this table from The Book of Calendars, (1982, edited by Frank Parise) a few countries had already adopted that date, but it was in the 1500s that everyone rushed to coordinate their parties. Scotland changed in 1600, shortly before becoming part of Great Britain, and Russia (the Julian holdout) in 1700.

Britain, who [except for Scotland] had been using a March 25 date for the New Year, didn’t formally adopt the January 1 New Year until 1752 as part of the same British Calendar Act of 1751 that decreed the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The Act begins by explaining that having the Year beginneth on March 25 is causing divers Inconveniences, and goes on to talk about how the change to the new system affects contracts, rent, and birthdays.

Because Britain changed so much later than the neighboring countries, dates in January and February could get a little confusing. Look at the cover of Issue number 144 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London:


That’s hard to see. Take a look at that year:


That’s 168\frac{2}{3}. February 10 was still part of 1682 in London, where the Royal Society met. But most of the rest of Europe had switched to a January 1 New Year, so in those regions it was already 1683.

You can see a similar date-writing in this letter from John Wallis:


The date of the letter:


Again, the date of 169\frac{7}{8} reflects the fact that it was 1697 in England but already 1698 in countries that had adopted the January 1 New Year.

One interesting note. According to this geneological newsletter, some dates in March were referred to as belonging to the 1st month of the new year, even though they were before March 25th. [This was part of a larger Ask a Librarian question having to do with interpreting dates that fell in January or February prior to 1753.]

Although the United States has always started the calendar year on January 1, the date confusion plays a role in reckoning the year of George Washington’s birth in addition to the day itself: his Official White House Biography says he was born on February 22, 1732 but on the actual day when he was born in Virginia it was February 11, 1731, what with Virginia being a British colony and so still under both the Julian calendar and the March 25th New Year.

Note #1: The historical images used here are old enough (more than the life of the author plus 70 years) that I believe they fall into the public domain.

Note #2: Most of the information here was from New Year on Wikipedia, plus this calendar site.

Note #3: When you google “date” and “New Year” you get a lot of interesting posts that have nothing to do with the calendar.


One Response to “Happy New Year (Again!)”

  1. Why is April 15 Tax Day? « 360 Says:

    […] it was expected to fail).  At that point, they declared March 1 to be Tax Day.  March 1, as you may recall, was New Year’s Day for the Ancient Romans, but that’s probably just a coincidence […]

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