Eleven Lost Days: Switching the Calendar

In the 18th century, England (and America) changed the calendar that it had been using for almost 2000 years. In the process, eleven days were “lost”. And, according to legend, there were riots as people took to the streets to demand their eleven days back.

Gregorio_XIII
Pope Gregory XIII       photo from Wiki commons

In ancient times, most calendars were lunar, and were based on the period of time between full moons or new moons. This, however, caused a problem over the longterm. The 30-day lunar cycle did not fit evenly into the 365-day solar cycle, so after a period of years any specific dates based on lunar cycles would be falling into completely different seasons. As a result, most agricultural societies began keeping solar time instead, based on the motion of the sun in the sky; astronomical observations were carefully kept to determine the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. This still caused problems, however, since the solar cycle did not equal 365 days–it actually lasted roughly 364.25 days. So the solar calendar gradually fell out of step with the actual cycle of the sun.

In the Roman times, the calendar was originally divided into ten months. (September, October, November and December come from the Latin for seven, eight, nine and ten.) The days of each month were counted from the first day (the Kalends) the middle day (the Ides) and the last day (the Nones). Later two more months were added. But this still left the year too short, so every so often two extra months (called the Intercalaris) had to be added. It was up to the priests to keep track of all this, and since nobody else actually understood the calendar’s workings, it was not unusual for the priesthood to adjust the length of the year (sometimes through bribery), making it longer or shorter for political or religious reasons.

In 45 BCE, under the rule of Julius Caesar, the mess became so confusing that a change was needed, and the Roman Republic adopted a version of the solar calendar that became known as the “Julian”. For the first time, this new calendar introduced the concept of the “leap year”–an extra day tacked on to one of the months to correct the discrepency caused by the fraction in the solar cycle. The Julian calendar also changed the beginning of the year. The old Roman calendar had used March 1 as the beginning of each year; the Julian system moved this to January 1.

The Julian calendar remained long after the Roman Empire collapsed. It was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and held sway throughout Europe for the next thousand years. The only modification to be made during this time was to change the date of the first of the year. The early Church, as part of an effort to emphasize the Christian holy days instead of the pagan Roman, moved the first day of the year away from January 1. In the 7th century CE Christmas Day was the beginning of the new year; by the 9th century CE the new year was set at March 25, Annunciation Day.

However, the Julian calendar also had a problem. The solar cycle, it turned out, was not exactly 364.25 days–it was a little less than that. So by adding a leap day every four years, the Julian calendar was actually adding too much time, and it fell out of step with the actual solar cycle by one full day every 128 years. By the 16th century CE, the calendar dates were ten days out of sync with the solar equinoxes and solstices.

This was a problem for the Church. Holy days such as Easter were calculated astronomically from the solar equinoxes and the lunar phases, but these were now irreconcilable with the calendar dates (Easter had traditionally been celebrated on March 21). So in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a sweeping change to bring the calendar back into alignment with the solar cycle. He decreed that ten days would be dropped in October; October 1 would be followed immediately by October 12. He also declared that the beginning of the new year would be moved to January 1. And finally, to solve the problems with the Julian calendar, Pope Gregory reduced the number of leap days: now instead of adding a leap day every four years, it would be added only if that year was divisible by 400.

The Gregorian calendar went into effect in Catholic Europe in October 1582. The Protestant countries, however, flatly refused to adopt the “Popish timekeeping”, and kept their Julian calendar. As a result, Europe now had two different calendars, simultaneously. To avoid confusion, civil, commercial and diplomatic documents began “double dating”, listing both the Julian and Gregorian dates. (But, to make things more confusing, in 1600 Scotland, then an independent kingdom, moved the beginning of the year on its Julian calendar from March 25 to January 1. Then in 1603, King James of Scotland also became King of England, and the British kingdom had the same calendar but with two different New Year’s days.)

This awkward system continued for almost 150 years, but soon it became so unwieldy that it could no longer be tolerated. In 1750, England bowed to reality, and Parliament passed a resolution that implemented the Gregorian calendar to bring Britain and her colonies into sync with the rest of the world. The beginning of the year was moved from March 25 (known as Lady Day) to January 1, and eleven days were dropped (the delay in adopting the Gregorian system had allowed the Julian calendar to become inaccurate by an extra day). As a result, March 24, 1750, was followed by March 25, 1751, but December 31, 1751, was then followed by January 1, 1752. (Thus the year 1751 lasted only 282 days instead of 365, and there was no January or February in that year.) Then, on Wednesday, September 2, 1752, eleven days were dropped, and the next day became Thursday, September 14.

In later centuries, a myth appeared that the benighted English peasants, upon being told that 11 days would be dropped from the calendar, thought that their lives were actually being shortened by almost two weeks, and rioters appeared in the streets demanding their eleven days back. In reality, contemporary records show no such incidents, although there were some local protests when a few landlords tried to collect a full month’s rent for the short month of September. The calendar change did become a political issue in Parliament between the Whigs and the Tories, with the conservatives opposing the “papish calendar”.

A few countries, however, still retained the Julian calendar. Tsarist Russia never adopted the Gregorian system. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union was established in 1917 that the new calendar came into use (which is why the February and October Revolutions happened in March and November). The last nation to adopt the Gregorian calendar was Turkey, in 1927.

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One thought on “Eleven Lost Days: Switching the Calendar”

  1. Oops, some boo-boos to correct: leap years are only added if the year is NOT divisible by 400, and the solar year is about 365.25 days, not 364.25 .

    See, that’s what I get for posting without proofreading…….

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