March 25 – Old New Year's Day

Posted on March 25, 2015

Have you ever wondered why the year starts in January? And why does January start on one particular day rather than any other?

I'm sure you realize that different cultures have created completely different calendars, with completely different months and different New Year's Days.

Of course we know that the idea behind a day – one full rotation of the Earth – and a year – one full revolution of the Earth around the  Sun – are based on astronomy...BUT when to separate one day from the next (sun up? in the middle of the night?) is arbitrary - which means that we could divide one day from the other in many different equally-valid ways, and of course different cultures have chosen different division spots, with ancient Jews counting sunset as the mark of a new day, and ancient Egyptians counted sunrise as the mark of a new day. Today, we use midnight as the starting point of the new day - which is usually around the middle of the night in most locales.

When to separate one year from the next is arbitrary, too.

Back in the old days, before our world was so connected and became so “small,” every culture's calendar was quite different, and of course they all began on different days. When civilization-straddling empires were created, there was a push for the calendars to become more standardized, but it wasn't until recently (the 1900s) that all countries used the same standardized calendar (the Gregorian calendar) for at least official purposes.

You know about Chinese New Year, celebrated in late January or in February—and celebrated in many countries in addition to China. Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on September 11, Nowruz (Persian New Year) is celebrated on the vernal equinox (March 20 to 22), and Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is celebrated in September or October. Many other local New Year's Days are celebrated in various places in the world.

For almost 600 years, March 25 was celebrated as the first day of the year in England. It was the day of the Catholic Feast of the Annunciation, and it was sometimes called “Lady Day” (the lady being Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Christian religion). It was a fairly convenient day to start the new year, since it was close to the equinox (the start of spring) and farmers had little to do in their fields.

In 1752, England and its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, which named January 1 as the first day of the year. Also, when the calendar change was made, 11 “lost days” had to be removed in order to get the calendar back in tune with astronomical reality. For a while dates were given according to the old calendar AND according to the new, so “Old Lady Day” was April 6, and “New Lady Day” was March 25.

Some remnants of the old system remain, with the United Kingdom's tax year starting on April 6.

The time of calendar change was very difficult for many. There were many irregular months because of the removed days—for example, months that were only 18 days long in the year of the switch-over, or even months that were longer than usual in that year. Some nations had weird one-time-only dates like February 30. To add the confusion, different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar in different years (and even different centuries!), so they had to remove fewer or more days than other nations, ranging from removing ten days (as France and Italy did in 1582) to removing 13 days (as Turkey, the last nation to adopt the modern calendar, did in 1927). People were uncertain about whether to change over their birthdates to the new style or stick with the old. I have written about the bumps and problems experienced during calendar change several times before: here and here and here.

Also on this date:

Independence Day in Greece

Maryland Day

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