New Year’s Day, and Britain late for the celebration

Those who are frustrated by the UK’s apparent reluctance to fully adopt the international system of measurement won’t be surprised to learn that this echoes events of 260 years ago, when Britain became one of the last countries in Western Europe to adopt the calendar we use today.

We are grateful to Nationwide BS for this account of the events surrounding the adoption of 1 January as the start of the New Year.

“What the Romans did for January 1st

January 1st was first put forward as New Year’s Day by the Romans, but it had some significant obstacles to overcome first. To begin with there were just ten Roman months – and January didn’t exist. This arrangement helps to explain why our ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months are so bafflingly named: “septem” is Latin for seven, “octo” means eight, “novem” nine and “decem” is ten.

Roman tradition had it that early king Numa Pompilius added January and February to the calendar to help it align with the seasons more effectively, and it was he who nominated January 1st as the date when Roman consuls were installed in year-long posts. When Julius Caesar introduced his solar-based “Julian” Calendar around 46 BC, the date was cemented as the first day of the year – at least for as long as the Roman Empire held sway.

Lady Day: the alternative New Year

In the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, things changed. And when Christianity returned to Britain in the early Middle Ages, it brought a wealth of alternative religious dates as candidates for the start of the year. The most prominent of these was the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, the moment of the incarnation nine months before the birth of Christ. Not only did this mark a sensible start to the Christian year, but it also fitted with the onset of spring and was the point at which year-long contracts between landowners and tenant famers naturally began. Lady Day, as it was known, became the legal start of the year, even though January 1st remained a popular day for celebrating New Year as part of the Christmas festivities.

This state of affairs only changed in 1752, when England finally adopted the Gregorian calendar that had been devised by Pope Gregory XIII almost two hundred years earlier. Gregory had updated the old Julian calendar, rationalising how the date of Easter was calculated and how leap years were chosen. But as a Catholic innovation, his reform hadn’t been welcome in protestant England, despite Scotland going Gregorian in 1600. It was only the necessities of international trade that eventually persuaded England into line.

Calendar compromises

When change eventually came, it was a rather messy affair. Not only did the English calendar have to move its official New Year back three months, but it had to deal with the fact that a considerable lag had built up between the length of its years and those of the rest of Europe (thanks to Gregory’s leap year tinkering). In order to bring things into line, September 2nd in 1752 was followed immediately by September 14th. The days in between simply disappeared, much to the disgust of workers who missed out on nearly two weeks’ pay. There may well have been riots in the streets (though the extent of the ‘calendar riots’ are disputed), there was certainly a great deal of discontent, and in these circumstances the authorities decided that they couldn’t risk any more disruption than was absolutely necessary. As a result they came up with a compromise that is still felt in the way that we organise our finances today.

The Treasury opted to keep the financial year-end at the end of March, close to the traditional Lady Day date. But to ensure that income tax was based on full-year’s earnings, the end of the tax year moved forward 11 days, landing on April 6th once the leap year of 1800 was taken into account.”

So there you have it. Holding out for as long as possible, then changing only when forced by the necessities of international trade. Sounds familiar? Yes, history has repeated itself with our measurement systems. But switching only part of the UK economy to the international or metric system of measurement and leaving other parts untouched has left a two-system muddle that no one now seems willing to fix. At least in Georgian Britain the Government did not try to run two calendars in parallel. So for more than two centuries we have have been accustomed to celebrating the New Year, not alone on 25 March, but together with almost everyone else on 1 January. Cheers!

The Editors of Metric Views wish all our readers a Happy New Year.

7 thoughts on “New Year’s Day, and Britain late for the celebration”

  1. … And I guess we will have two centuries of two measurement systems to look forward to.
    We are already so entrenched in it that change, if any, will take a very, very long time.
    Hopefully I am totally wrong and 2014 will be the year BBC decide to come to the party and kick it all off again.
    I believe in fairies just about as much as I believe in Father Christmas.

    Happy new year to all anyway!


  2. I have often wondered why our tax year ended on April 5th. Every other country I have lived in has the end of the personal tax year coinciding with the end of the calendar year – 31st December. But not in the UK. Yet one more instance why we still persist in not doing what the rest of the world does logically and naturally. Even in the USA – a country not particularly noted for falling into line with the way the rest of the world does things – the personal tax year there ends on 31 December.


  3. It really does not suprise me that we were the last country. Why as a country are we so against embracing anything new? It is the 21st century and we are still using Victorian measurements. It isn’t just in the cricket that the Australians put us to shame.


  4. In the US, most individual tax payers file on a calendar year basis. However, for both individuals and businesses, the option exists to file a request with the IRS to use a different fiscal year ending on the last day of the month chosen by the filer. These are normally granted, but the option is more widely used by business than by individuals. The IRS gets grumpy if you request repeated changes.

    The downside is that our tax law is so complex that we then get three and a half months to figure out what we owe. For most of us, the tax year ends on December 31, and required filing date is April 15. Withholding on wages and estimated tax payments ensure we are mostly paid up by the filing date (or face a penalty).


  5. I take the point in the article about Britain’s attitude to international standards but I have to say I hate the Gregorian calendar. All this nonsense with 30 days in some months and 31 in others etc, as well as a 7 day week, makes interval reckoning impossible without a calendar and not easy even then.

    I am not suggesting we decimalize it but I am sure we do something better than that.

    BTW, in case anyone wonders why, the leap year is to compensate for the fact that the true length of the year is 365.24 days, so any calendar would have to keep it, assuming we need to maintain the equinoxes and solstices in synchronization.


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