Once again, it’s a new year and there’s no better time than now to consider why we measure time the way we do. In the year 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar. Europe had adhered to the Julian calendar, first implemented by Julius Caesar, in 46 B.C. Since the Roman system miscalculated the length of the solar year by 11 minutes, the calendar, about 1,600 years later, had fallen out of sync with the seasons. This concerned Gregory because it meant that Easter, traditionally observed near March 21, fell further away from the spring equinox with each passing year.
In the Protestant parts of Europe, many people viewed the Gregorian calendar as a Catholic plot. Thus England did not adopt the new calendar until 1752, about 170 years later. By that time the Julian calendar, which England followed, was almost 16,000 minutes behind the Gregorian calendar which the rest of Western Europe followed. [The actual number is 15,848.] In other words, England had to catch up with the rest of Western Europe by dropping 11 days.
According to some accounts, English citizens did not react kindly after an Act of Parliament advanced the calendar overnight from September 2 to September 14, 1752. Rioters supposedly took to the streets, demanding that the government “give us back our 11 days.” However, most historians now believe that these protests were greatly exaggerated. On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin welcomed the change, writing, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”
Julius Caesar’s calendar reform of 46 B.C. instituted January 1 as the first day of the year. During the Middle Ages, however, European countries replaced it with days that carried greater religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). The latter, known as Lady Day, because it celebrated the Virgin Mary, marked the beginning of the year in Britain until January 1, 1752.
Now that we have the calendar straightened out perhaps we can all relax and enjoy the New Year. Have a happy one!
Read additional articles by John Shumway.