How shall we count the days?

There were riots in the streets and people thought 11 days of their lives had been stolen. David Self looks at how and why we adopted the Gregorian calendar

On Wednesday, September 2, 1752, everybody in England and Wales went to sleep as usual. When they woke up next morning, it was Thursday September 14, 1752. Many people believed that the government had robbed them of 11 days of their lives.

The Act of Parliament that brought about that calendar revision also decreed that, from then on, New Year's Day should fall on January 1. So it is only for the last 250 years that this date has been regarded in Britain as the start of the year. Before then, the year started on the apparently strange date of March 25.

Of course, the new year begins on different dates for different people. For schools and colleges, the academic year begins in September. Traditionally, that was when university scholars returned from summer travels or after helping to gather the harvest.

The start of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, coincides with the first new moon after the autumn equinox (when day and night are equal in length). This year it takes place on September 7 and 8. For the Chinese community, the start of the new year is also dictated by the moon, and usually begins in early February. The Islamic calendar is lunar, too, with each year starting on the anniversary of the Prophet's flight from Mecca to Medina.

So how did March 25 come to be New Year's Day and why was it necessary to lose 11 days in 1752? To answer this we have to go back to the time of Julius Caesar. In the year 46 BCE (before the Common Era), the Emperor consulted one of Cleopatra's court astrologers, Sosigenes, about standardising the length of each year. Sosigenes suggested that each year should have 365 days, with an extra "leap" day every fourth year in February. This pattern became known as the Julian calendar, with January as the first month of the year. The Christian Church gradually rejected this secular custom and, by the seventh century of the Common Era, Christmas Day was observed as the start of the new year, numbering each year from the supposed date of the birth of Christ (we now know this was no later than 4BCE).

In the 12th century, the Church changed its mind. If the start of each new year was to celebrate the arrival of Christ on earth, then New Year's Day should be celebrated nine months earlier, on March 25 - arguably the date of his conception. From that time on, each new year began on March 25, a date also known as Lady Day in honour of Mary. It was one of the four quarter days - dates on which rents and taxes were due for payment. Other quarter days were midsummer day, September 29 and Christmas day.

Meanwhile, the Arabic sciences of arithmetic and algebra had gradually spread westwards, along with the use of Arabic numerals and such devices as decimals and the concept of zero. Much more precise calculations were now possible than Sosigenes could have made. By 1582, astronomers were able to advise Pope Gregory XIII that the length of the year was not exactly 365 and one-quarter days (as Sosigenes had calculated) but 365.242199 days, the difference leading to an accumulated error. To correct for this, the Pope proclaimed that October 5, 1582 would became October 15, 1582. To prevent future problems, centennial years would not be leap years unless exactly divisible by four hundred. So 1600 and 2000 would be leap years; 1700, 1800 and 1900 would not.

Roman Catholic countries quickly adopted the new "Gregorian" calendar but resistance swept through the northern and generally Protestant countries. England in particular (where Elizabeth I felt threatened by Catholic rivals) had nothing at all to do with this Roman "theft" of 10 days.

Gradually, however, the rest of Europe fell into line. Protestant Germany and Switzerland adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700. Scotland had done so as early as 1600, as a consequence of which calendars in London and Edinburgh showed different dates (by making the journey south at the right time, it was possible to observe Christmas twice in one year).

Eventually, England decided to conform. The Calendar (New Style) Act of 1751 ruled that 11 days should be omitted from September 1752 to bring England into line with Europe (11 days, not 10, since England had observed 1700 as a leap year). January 1, 1752, was decreed to be New Year's Day.

There was a public outcry, with mobs in London, Bristol and other places shouting, "Give us back our 11 days". Others moaned privately about missing birthdays.

By way of appeasement - and to avoid the possibility of accusations that they were collecting a whole year's taxes for just 354 days - the Government decided that all taxes, rents, salaries and contracts due to be paid on Lady Day should be settled 11 days later. April 5 remains to this day the end of the tax year - yet another of the calendar's new year "festivals".

Take out your diaries

* Look at a calendar. Which months have 30 days? Which have 31? When is the next leap year?

* How can we remember which months have 30 days? Teach pupils "Thirty days hath September...".

* Why do we start our year in January? Ask pupils to argue the case for starting at a different time of year. Divide the class into groups and give each group a different date. They should then research and assemble arguments for starting the year on that date. The class can then vote to find the winning argument.

* Find out what events will be missed if the next 11 days are scrapped. Ask the class to make personal lists of important events occurring in the next 11 days. What may be the benefits of losing 11 days? (Missing spelling tests or dental appointments.) Who will suffer if these days are lost? (Anyone with a birthday.)

ROMAN NUMERALS

I is 1

V is 5 (IV is 4, VI is 6)

X is 10

L is 50 (XL is 40, LX is 60)

C is 100

M is 1000

S is a half (semisque)

: - - is a quarter

* In Roman numerals, there were CCCLXV :- - days in a year.

* Note how difficult even simple addition and subtraction sums are when you use Roman numerals. r Note too that Arabic is written and read from right to left. This practice is followed when using Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3...) in traditional addition, subtraction and multiplication sums, working them from right to left.

* Try making a calendar for September 2002, using Roman instead of Arabic numerals - then make one for September 1752.

* Is the Arabic number system better than the Roman? Ask pupils to do simple sums with Roman numerals. How easy is it to distinguish between hundreds, tens and units?

* Do the sums again using Arabic numerals. It is easier to distinguish between numbers of different magnitude using the Arabic system because hundreds, tens and units are separated. Discuss place value.

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