March 25? Happy Colonial New Year!
What a radical calendar overhaul revealed about America
This March 25 will likely pass quietly, another chilly Tuesday in early spring. But in the Boston of 300 years ago, the day would have been very noteworthy indeed: It marked the start of the new calendar year.
The Colonists, as Britain had for centuries, celebrated the change of the year in late March—the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day. Rents were due, contracts began, and obligations renewed on March 25, the “New Year.”
And then one year, all of that changed. In a sweeping reform, the British government adopted the new and more accurate reckoning of dates already used in other countries, moving New Year’s Day three months earlier in the process. And as disruptive as that sounds—in Britain, there were reports of wage theft and timing glitches for important festivals—business here went on as usual. The Colonists, in fact, were more than ready for a change that aligned them with the rest of the European powers. And to look back at that moment is to catch a glimpse, before anything like the instant communication we have today, of what “globalization” looked like when the passing of the days was marked on ink and paper.
The strange-sounding New Year existed because for the first 130 years of early American history, Britain and its colonies ran on the Julian calendar, conceived by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The calendar had the familiar 12 months and 365 days, but one significant drawback: Its system of leap days didn’t quite match up with the solar year, and over time it gradually slid out of alignment with the equinoxes.
The solution to this problem came from Rome: In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted what became known as the Gregorian calendar, which reduced the number of leap years enough to stabilize the connection between Easter and the spring equinox. But the British, not wanting to follow a Pope’s lead, continued to adhere to the Julian calendar for centuries after most of Europe switched.
Under the Julian system, New Year’s tended to vary from country to country; Britain preferred to mark it on March 25, a Christian holiday, rather than the original Roman New Year’s Day of Jan. 1. (March 25 was traditionally the date when Mary found out about her pregnancy, and familiarly known as “Lady Day.”) So through the 1600s and into the 1700s, continental Europeans had agreed to turn their calendars over on Jan. 1, but the British world continued to mark the beginning of a civil and legal year three months later.
Over time, the misalignment of dates made trade between Britain and the rest of Europe difficult. The British mercantile class began to agitate for calendar reform, and the government finally relented with the Calendar Act of 1751, which declared that as of 1752, Britain and its colonies would adopt the Gregorian system, including its Jan. 1 New Year. It created a very strange year, in which 1751 started in March, but 1752 started the following January; the next September was shortened by 11 days to shift the overall calendar into alignment with Gregorian timekeeping.
Calendars, almanacs, and journals all warned people in Britain of the impending switch, but because the economic, agricultural, and cultural calendars adjusted in different ways to the change, the end effect was confusion. Historian Robert Poole, who has written about the effects of the calendar reforms in Britain, found no evidence of the violent working-class protests and shouts of “Give us our 11 days!” claimed in some histories, but did find that some unscrupulous landlords and employers took advantage of the chaos to pad their pockets. Meanwhile, because some agricultural festivals and holidays remained on the “old style” calendar, there were conflicts over the timing of fairs and festivals.
Not so in the Colonies. Mark M. Smith, of the University of South Carolina, is a historian who has investigated the way that the calendar reform affected life in the future United States. “The assumption that it was going to be chaotic comes from the English side of things,” he says. “I just didn’t find that in the Colonial record.”
America was already a culturally diverse place, and that made it calendrically bilingual. Many Americans, Smith found, were using the Gregorian calendar long before 1752. Settlers who were Moravian or Dutch in origin, for example, used the Gregorian calendar in communicating with each other, and would switch to the Julian when they needed to talk to British-American counterparts. Scotland had switched to a Jan. 1 New Year in 1600 (while mostly adhering to the Julian calendar), so Scots settlers were already partway on the bandwagon.
Even some American Colonists who were British in origin had begun using the Gregorian and Julian calendars simultaneously before the change, in order to do business with others who were already following the “new style.” Sailors, like Captain John Smith, used Gregorian dates in their planning and communication.
The story of the calendar reform in the Colonies hints at a kind of diversity and pragmatic coexistence that would come to define the young country, and Smith hypothesizes that it helped with something else as well. Though the British couldn’t possibly have intended it, the new regularity could have contributed to a growing feeling of unity in its distant American possessions, and facilitated the Revolution.
Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.