Why New Year’s Eve can wait

Champagne being poured into glasses
Photo by Alexander Naglestad on Unsplash

We celebrate the New Year to mark a turning point, to make plans for a better year ahead. We drink champagne, sing Auld Lang Syne, and fall over in the high heels we shouldn’t have worn on the way home. But right now, with the pandemic, not much of that will be happening this December 31. With the risk of spreading a disease, few of us are going to be hugging and dancing with friends. Many of us shudder at the thought of being in a crowded room with the coronavirus still at large, and don’t feel much like celebrating. Some people already made the decision to defer their family Thanksgiving and Christmas until some time next year.

Fortunately, there’s a historical precedent for us to celebrate the New Year just a little bit later. Until 1752, Britain and the British colonies (except Scotland) used the Julian calendar, and New Year was marked on March 25. This is Lady Day, also known as the Feast of the Annunciation, marking in the Christian calendar when the Archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was carrying the Christ child. (March 25 being exactly 9 months before Christmas). Their New Year’s day was a spring celebration, occurring a few days after Easter (traditionally March 21).

However, the Julian calendar had some problems, that had become more glaring over time. A calculation error meant that it was out by 1 day every 128 years. This meant that the calendar year had drifted (in the 17 centuries since its creation) away from the solar cycle. By the 1700s, Easter was happening further and further from the spring equinox, and the calendar needed to be adjusted.

The alternative model was the Gregorian calendar, (created by Pope Gregory XIII). This calendar, the one we know now, uses the 365 day solar year — with an extra day every four years (the leap year). Most Catholic countries had made the shift to the Gregorian calendar through the 1600s, but the Protestant and Orthodox nations held out (partly reluctant to adopt a Vatican creation). Sweden made the shift a year after England, but Greece, Russia and Turkey stuck with the Julian calendar into the twentieth century — Turkey waiting longest, until 1927.

In England, Parliament passed the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 to introduce the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire. The path was not smooth. There had to be some calculations and adjustments made. The year 1751 was made shorter, just 282 days from March 25 (New Year in the Julian calendar) to December 31. The year 1752 then began on 1 January. But the calendar still needed to be aligned with that of other Gregorian nations, by skipping 11 days. It was decreed that Wednesday, September 2, 1752 would simply be followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752! (Much to some people’s consternation).

Historians are familiar with this glitch — as were people alive at the time, who would note in their diaries and in letters two dates (OS for “Old Style” and NS, for “New Style”). Anything between January and March needed to be clarified. For example, George Washington’s February birth was in 1731 by the Julian calendar, but 1732 by the Gregorian.

And he grew up celebrating the New Year in March. So perhaps this year, we should do the same. Keep the champagne in the fridge til Spring. Covid won’t be gone, but by March the vaccination program will be making more inroads. There’s a chance we will be really emerging from the worst of this pandemic. Sounds like something I’ll be ready to celebrate.



Historian, writer. Newsletter: katrinagulliver.substack.com Home: katrinagulliver.com

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