By Frank Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator
The year is now 2014. We know because the calendar told us, we watched a ball drop, sang a Robert Burns poem, we kissed a loved one or two, sipped a bubbly beverage, and woke up with a headache just in time to watch the Rose Parade.
In 1752, things were a little more complicated for England and her colonies than just hanging a new calendar on the wall. That was the year of the big switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.
Those of us in the 21st century United States complain twice a year when we have to turn our clocks backwards and forwards for Daylight Saving Time; have to think every four years about a longer February; and, of course assume the world and all its computers will self-destruct every time a new millennium comes around.
Imagine you lived with George Mason and his new bride Ann in 1751. Like everyone else in the British colonies you celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25 or Lady Day (the traditional name of the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin). Then, a mere nine months later, 1752 began on a new New Year’s Day, January 1. To make matters worse, when you went to bed on Wednesday, September 2, 1752, you woke up the very next day on Thursday, September 14, 1752. Eleven days of your life just disappeared! And we complain about losing an hour of sleep when we set the clocks back.
The proposal to change the calendar was made by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. His reasoning was sound; adjustments had to be made because the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun just weren’t exactly cooperating with Julius Caesar’s Julian calendar which had been in place since 46 A.D. Time needed an adjustment so Easter could be consistently and accurately scheduled.
The Julian calendar year was 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the actual trip around the sun. Over centuries, this inaccuracy caused days to drift away from the actual seasons when they were suppose to occur. The vernal equinox, critical for scheduling the Feast of Easter, had shifted from March 21 to March 11. If something wasn’t done, soon stores would be hanging Christmas decorations before Halloween. Oh, wait, never mind.
Gregory’s papal bull to reform the calendar was quickly accepted by most Catholic countries in Europe. Italy, Spain, France and Poland converted to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but in Protestant countries like England, new calendar reform was mistrusted, fearing it was a plot to get those countries back into the Catholic fold.
The British Empire was satisfied with the Julian calendar until Parliament passed the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. After waiting for over 160 years, the British could say the change was practical and not religious. According to Parliament:
Whereas the legal supputation of the year of our Lord in England, according to which the year beginneth on the twenty-fifth day of March, hath been found by experience to be attended with divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom….
By the time Parliament had hammered out all the details of eliminating days, moving New Year’s Day, calculating leap years, allowing for movable and immovable feasts, festivals, taxes, courts, holy days, pasture use, rent payments, and all other details, the Act ran over 3,000 words with 18 charts and tables to help clarify the information, including one that made it easy to know the date of Easter Sunday right through 2199 (it’s April 14, in case you need to know).
The Virginia Gazette summed up the legislation much more succinctly in its June 20, 1751, issue with but 111 words.
We are assured, that the alteration of the Style of the Year will take place the first of next January, and that that will be the first day of the year 1752; that eleven days will be taken out of that year at Michaelmas following; that all State Holydays will be observed on the same day of the month they are at present, that Payments will be made according to the Number of Days, counting from their Date. The Table of Moveable Feasts is made by Doctor Bradley [the king’s astronomer]. We are to reckon by the Gregorian Style, and all Quarterly Payments are to be made at the four great feasts as usual.
Changing the date when the new year begins and eliminating 11 days from the year can cause confusion for historians and researchers, as well as for the people who were living through it. O.S., meaning Old Style and N.S., New Style are often used to compute birthdates and to date events and documents.
George Washington, for example, was born on February 11, 1731, O.S. Because he was born before New Year’s Day in March, after the 1752 calendar change, his birthday became February 22, 1732, N.S., the date that his birthday is traditionally celebrated. Thomas Jefferson, who carefully gave instructions about which of his many accomplishments to carve on his tombstone, had his birth date inscribed as April 2, 1743 O.S.
So 1752 was the shortest year in history, at least in England and her colonies, with a mere 355 days. An historical event of note in that year was on June 15, when Benjamin Franklin used a kite, a key, and a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was electricity. It’s good that he didn’t try to discover electricity during those missing days in September, or you would be reading this in the dark.
“Calendar (New Style) Act 1750.” Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/apgb/Geo2/24/23/introduction>.
Poole, Dr. Robert. “Time's Alteration: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England (Google EBook).” Google Books. UCL Press. 1998. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=cXCgakgPHBYC>.
Stanton, Lucia. “Old Style (O.S.).” Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS.., June 1995. Web. 20 Dec. 2013. <http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/old-style-os>.
“The Scots Magazine, Volume 13, 1751 (Google EBook).” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=GN85AQAAMAAJ>.