The date 25 December, which falls three or four days after the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, has been important since ancient times. In Ancient Babylon it celebrated the birth of the Son of Isis, with lots of partying and gift-giving. In Rome, the winter solstice celebrations ended with the feast of Brumalia on 25 December. Many Romans followed the cult of the Sun God, Mithra; they reportedly believed that Mithra was born of a virgin on 25 December and came to earth to save men from their sins, and that, as he ‘grew’, the days would become longer and warmer.
In the fourth century, the Romans made the political decision to officially deify Jesus Christ (some Christian sects didn’t believe in his divinity), and to impose Christianity on their pagan majority so as to ease social unrest. Pope Julius I decided that the pagans would convert to Christianity more readily if Christian celebrations were held on the same days as pagan celebrations. So, although theologians say that Christ was born in any one of a number of months other than December, the Christians chose to celebrate the birth of their ‘Son of God’ on the same day many pagans celebrated the birth of their ‘Sun God’.
The day nine months before that, 25 March, became the Feast of the Annunciation when, according to Christian belief, the angel Gabriel announced the Virgin Mary’s conception of Christ. This date became known as ‘Lady Day’.
In England, Lady Day became the first day of both the calendar year and the financial year. That being the case, the date 24 March 1750 was followed by 25 March 1751. But in 1752, England not only dumped eleven days from its calendar (see Newsletter 1 and picture below), it also dumped Lady Day as the beginning of the calendar year, and changed to the calendar we use today. So 31 December 1751 was followed by 1 January 1752—which means that, in the English calendar at least, the dates 1 January to 24 March 1751 never existed! How bizarre is that. Which also explains why George Washington’s birthday was officially changed from 11 February 1731 to 22 February 1732 as mentioned in the previous newsletter.
This explains why the International Genealogical Index, for example, can list two entries for the same person with the year of the event differing by one year, one generally being from the official church register transcription and the other from a contributor. To solve this problem, historians and genealogists should use a notation like ‘1731/32’ for the pre-1752 dates between 1 January and 24 March. Or to be even more accurate (or pedantic): 11/22 February 1731/32!
But back to Lady Day. What were the Brits to do about their financial year? Rents were paid on ‘quarter days’, that is, Lady Day, Midsummer’s Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas Day. Fiddling with the nation’s finances would be a nightmare. So the days deleted from the calendar for September 1752 were added to 25 March with the result that the new financial year began, thereafter, on 6 April.
[Thank you to Clare Shiels for the picture.]