A Date by Any Other Name

image Pope Gregory XIIIA new year is sliding down the timeline toward us, my 66th new year. I don’t remember the first few of them, being too young to be aware of cultural events. They happened, nonetheless, one at a time, which says something about the subjectivity of time perception.

What is the “New Year” anyway? How did we decide the year starts on January 1st and not some other date? What is so meaningful about January over other months?

It turns out that January 1st has not always been New Years Day.

I’ve been working on my family genealogy for many years now. One of the challenges in researching the lives of my ancestors and their descendants is determining the correct date mentioned in correspondence and documentation of people living in Great Britain and the American colonies before 1753.

Why 1753?

The calendar we use today is called the Gregorian Calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII, who revised the then standard Julian Calendar in 1582. These revisions had to do with the exact length of the calendar year and its relationship to the Spring equinox, which was essential in the Catholic church for determining the exact day of Easter. The Julian Calendar’s year length was just slightly longer than the actual solar year, a difference that piled up over the years, eventually causing the Spring equinox to fall before its actual solar occurrence. People began to notice the difference and question the wisdom of the church in its calculation of the Easter festivities.

The Gregorian Calendar eliminated the difference by changing the way the extra day of Leap Year was added to the calendar, resulting in the year starting on January 1st rather than March 25, making January the first month of the year rather than the tenth.

If this change was made in 1582, why did England and the Colonies not adopt the change until 1753?

A large part of the history of Great Britain was a struggle between defenders of Catholic and Protestant religions, a struggle inscribed in the calendar system in use by the people and dominating governments of England and its colonies. While the Catholic Church changed its calendar system in the 1500s, along with most of Europe, England’s state religion, the Protestant Church of England, resisted the change for some 200 years.

The difference in calendars is made more complex by the ways in which dates were recorded in official records and personal correspondence. Rather than February 12, 1550, or 2/12/1550 as we write today, dates were recorded as the Twelfth Day of the Eleventh Month of the Year of Our Lord 1549, or even more difficult, 12 D 11 M 50 Henry VIII (12th Day 11th Month in the 50th year of the reign of Henry VIII).

In order to transfer the Julian calendar to the present Gregorian Calendar, it’s important to know that February was the 11th month of 1549 in the former, not the 2nd month of 1550 in the latter.


Once you get the hang of it, and remember to pay attention, it’s not too hard to figure out dates for your pre-1753 British ancestors.

But now there’s a new wrinkle. It seems that even the Gregorian calendar is not good enough for some. There has been a movement for some years, largely from bureaucrats, to change the Gregorian calendar such that all dates fall on the same day of the week every year, thus reducing all the necessary mucking about with dates and days changing from year to year. The result would be that your birthday and holidays would always occur on the same day of the week.

I suspect I won’t have to worry about that development for the rest of my life, even if I live that long.

Happy New Year, whenever you celebrate it!

Click HERE for a detailed description of our complicated calendrical past.

Pope Gregory XIII image from Genealogy in Time Magazine


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