By Nancy Bilyeau
Published Online (2012)
Earlier this month January 1st past, marking the first day of 2012. Time to hang your freshly bought calendars and write a new year on your checks.
But strange as it may seem, January 1st did not always signal the beginning of a new calendar year. Until 1752, the two were separate things in England and its colonies. Until that point, people began each calendar year on March 25, which was Annunciation Day—or Lady Day. This was the day the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to deliver the news that she had conceived and would give birth to Jesus in nine months.
It took an 18th century act of Parliament for England to officially begin each new calendar year on January 1st. The centuries of discrepancy cause lots of headaches for historians and genealogists. There’s no question that it’s strange, not least because England lagged behind much of the rest of Western Europe. Why did this Protestant nation cling to Annunciation Day—by its very definition a day revolving around the Virgin—as the time to change the calendar when most Catholic countries had already shifted to January 1st in the 16th century or 17th century?
The reason for the January 1st controversy has a lot to do with England’s refusal to take orders from a pope after Henry VIII’s break from Rome in the 1530s. It was Pope Gregory XIII who replaced Julius Caesar’s calendar, devised in 45 BC, with a new one in 1582—and it’s the Gregorian calendar we all use today. Reform was unquestionably needed. There were too many days in the year; the equinoxes were out of whack; the Julian calendar had strayed 10 days from the solar calendar.
Among other things, the pope’s new calendar established that each calendar year begin on January 1st. Once it was issued, Italy, Spain and Portugal instantly adopted the Gregorian calendar, followed by France and the other Catholic countries of Europe. But England, Germany and the Netherlands refused. So for centuries, there were two calendars in Western Europe.
The first step to understanding this furor is to realize that Pope Gregory XIII was not simply someone who cared about calendars. Born in Bologna as Ugo Buoncompagno, he was a transitional pope. Certainly not as venal and corrupt as the Borgias a century earlier, he was a gifted teacher and administrative talent who nonetheless had an illegitimate son before marrying and really liked to spend money. Once he became Gregory XIII, he spent huge sums on not only Catholic colleges but also displays such as the Gregorian Chapel in St. Peter’s. To pay for all this, he resorted to papal confiscation. Most relevant to our story, he supported the overthrow of Henry VIII’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth I. Gregory’s predecessor, Pope Pius V, had already excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her a usurper in 1570. During his papal office, Gregory put intense pressure on the Spanish king, Philip II, to invade and dethrone England’s queen. Gregory personally financed an armed force of 800 men to land in Ireland to join a Catholic rebellion against Elizabeth (it fizzled). Moreover, a Jesuit led the papal commission to devise the Gregorian calendar—and the Jesuits were the religious order specifically created to fight the Protestant Reformation. This all fueled Elizabethan England’s refusal to accept anything that originated in the Vatican.
The fierce clashes between Catholic and Protestant in the 16th century are the tumultuous background of my historical thrillers. The heroine of my debut novel, The Crown–which is being published on January 10, 2012—is a novice in the Dominican Order at Dartford Priory, outside London. But it’s not just the Christian splintering in early modern Europe that fascinates me. I also love studying what came long before the Renaissance.
This October, as Halloween approached, I researched the roots of the holiday’s celebration in Tudor England and made some discoveries. I learned that the roots of Halloween reach back to the Dark Ages Celtic festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”), when people lit bonfires and put on costumes to scare away the spirits of the unfriendly dead. All-Hallows-Even, which was shortened to “Halloween” in the 16th century, was a complex blend of Celtic and Catholic customs. After all, the holiday was the run-up to All Saints’ Day on November 1st, an occasion to venerate all the Catholic martyrs. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers took a dim view of Halloween, but its popularity was so great that they were unable to stamp it out.
My Oct. 27, 2011, blog post on Halloween stirred up so much attention that it made me want to keep reading about the distant and complex roots of what we celebrate today.
I began thinking about the origins of Christmas and New Year’s Day the morning of December 20th, when I stood outside my apartment building with my son, waiting for his school bus to arrive. Although it was 7:15 a.m., dawn had barely broken; the Christmas lights that the superintendent had strung over the bushes glowed yellow in the purplish-gray light. A hazy fullness hung in the air—and it seemed to carry a strange potency. Almost like something magical. I had no idea as I stood there that what I sensed would connect to January 1st and the fascinating furor over when to begin the calendar year.
I snapped a photo and posted it on my Facebook page, along with sharing a description of the strange feeling all around me. A high school friend, D.K. Carlson, offered an explanation: “The solstice is almost here.” It made me shiver to think it was the power of the winter solstice that touched me that morning: the approach of the shortest day of the year, the moment when the earth is in a point of its orbit farthest away from the sun. I find it very interesting that Julius Caesar established December 25th as the date of the winter solstice. It was—you guessed it—Pope Gregory XIII who made the adjustment to December 21st.
Long before the time of Julius Caesar, man honored the solstice. Bronze Age archaeologists have uncovered symbols and signs that reveal awareness of the shortest day of the year. The monuments of Stonehenge and Newgrange in Ireland are believed to have solstice alignments. In 2000 BC, people may have gathered at Stonehenge in mid-December to pray for the sun to return again, the source of all life.
Again and again, in many societies and religions, the solstice has great meaning. For the Druids, it was Alban Arthuan, the Light of Winter. As part of the celebration, priests cut the mistletoe that grew on winter oaks and blessed it. Germanic pagans launched the tradition of burning the Yule log and decorating a home with clippings of evergreen trees.
In Rome, not surprisingly, the celebrations became more debauched. Saturnalia, which took place in mid-December, ran the gamut from heavy drinking to gambling to reversing society norms, with masters waiting on slaves. Lighting candles was very important. So was the tradition of children going house to house, offering small gifts, such as wrapped fruit, in exchange for other tokens.
Saturnalia was so popular that not even the Fall of Rome could kill it. It morphed into the Feast of Fools, celebrated from the Fifth Century until the Renaissance in much of Western Europe on January 1st. The servants became the masters, with a lower-echelon “Lord of Misrule” chosen to preside over all drunken festivities beginning in late December and concluding on the first of January.
Not surprisingly, the early Catholic Church did not look kindly on the parties–stimulated by the winter solstice–that marked January 1st. The church leaders didn’t want something as important as beginning a new year to take place on that same day. In 567 AD, a Council of Tours decreed that the first of January was abolished and the blameless Annunciation Day was chosen. It took a while for this to be accepted, but by medieval times, people in England looked on March 25th as the beginning of the year. And this tradition stuck through the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and into the time of the Hanoverians.
Until finally, in 1752, in the reign of George II, England – and its colonies in the Americas—made the change, and January 1st was officially deemed the beginning of the year.
We thank Nancy Bilyeau for this article. You can read more from Nancy at A Bloody Good Read