January by the fireside – glass painting from Norwich, 1480-1500
(Image: Public Domain; source: Wikimedia Commons - see link here)
So, here we are on the 12th day of 2012. Have you acclimatised, yet, to the new digit? Or do you pause, pen poised, over your cheques/forms/letters – as I do – wondering for a moment what year it is?
Actually, I must confess, this is a year-round hesitation for me, as I seem to have reached the stage (make that age) at which the years blur into one another, and I regularly feel, come the end of any December, that I am only just getting used to it being 2011 (or 2010, or 2009…) and, blow it, it’s about to change again.
This uncertainty puts me in mind of my childhood self’s astonishment at the fact that, whenever my mother was asked her age, she had to go through the rigmarole of working it out from her birth year. How – my 6-year-old self wondered, with something like outrage and something like pity – could anyone forget how old they were? It was unfathomable to me, when the year of being 6 was, well, so completely filled with 6-ish-ness (not to mention 6-and-a-quarter-ish-ness, and all the other nice divisions) – and, even more than that, was so interminably long! My age, at that time, was a matter of pride and of impatient anguish, and ran bright and strong through my very core like the words in a stick of rock. Nowadays I, of course (you guessed it) have to work it out, should anyone ask me, just like my mum.
But back to January. I have long been aware that in England, for several centuries prior to 1752 (and prior to 1600 in Scotland), the change of year occurred not on January 1st, but on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation. I've been aware of this mainly, I must admit, as an inconvenient fact – a nuisance, and a potential cause of errors in research.
It is only recently that I’ve begun to wonder about it.
(below: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry – ‘January’)
Because, you see, at this period when the change of year occurred on March 25th, January 1st was still called “New Year’s Day”, and – since January 1st, and not December 25th, was the traditional time for exchanging gifts – the gifts of the season were called New Year’s gifts.
So, “New Year’s Day” was January 1st – a day on which the year-number did not change. Then on March 25th the year-number did change, but smoothly and silently, without celebration. (Samuel Pepys, for example, refers to January 1st as New Year’s Day in his Diary, but does not change the year in his entries until March 25th – when he does so without comment.) This apparently effortless double thinking about dates baffles and somehow rather impresses me.
How did it come about? For an answer, I have turned to Steve Roud’s excellent book The English Year:
In the ancient pre-Julian Roman calendar, there were ten months and the New Year started on 1 March (which is why the names of the months September to December derive from the words ‘seven’ to ‘ten’). It was Julius Caesar, when introducing what became known as the Julian calendar, who changed it to 1 January. This was the accepted ‘international standard’ when Christianity was being formed, but when the new religion began making headway, many followers thought that a specifically Christian view of the calendar should be adopted, and once the Nativity of Christ had been set at 25 December, many naturally argued that this day should be regarded as the beginning of the year. Others, counting nine months back from Christmas Day, argued that the Feast of the Annunciation, the conception of Christ (25 March), should really mark the beginning of the Christian year. The supporters of 25 March won the day, and…a dual system of New Years was thus created, which persisted for centuries.
Despite the fact that March 25th was the official start of the year, Roud tells us that January 1st “had been called New Year’s Day by people high and low, from at least the thirteenth century.” But what did the title mean to people at this time, if the day was not, in fact, the beginning of a new year? Was it widely known that January 1st had been the start of the year in Julius Caesar's time? Or did people barely even notice the strangeness of the situation, having known nothing else? (I suspect that we are all fully capable, like the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, of believing six impossible things before breakfast - as long as everyone else believes them too.) Anyway, I do hope that readers of this blog might be able to shed further light on the subject for me, in the comments box. Many thanks if you can!
Incidentally – for anyone thinking about tax deadlines this month – it’s interesting to note that when, in 1752, the English calendar finally was reformed, making January 1st the beginning of the new year in fact as well as in name, the Exchequer decided not to make the change. However, the reform of the calendar entailed the ‘loss’ of 11 days, so instead of March 25th, the new year for tax purposes began on April 6th. As, of course, it still does.
I cannot possibly end this piece on the subject of tax, so I will leave you with two more things:
The first is a snapshot of Henry VIII on New Year’s Day (January 1st) 1538, as a stream of people filed into the Presence Chamber bearing New Year gifts for him. The account is from a letter written two days later by John Husee to his patron Viscount Lisle:
The King stood leaning against the cupboard, receiving all things; and Mr Tuke at the end of the same cupboard, penning all things that were presented; and behind his Grace stood Mr Kingstone and Sir John Russell, and beside his Grace stood the earl of Hertford and my lord privy seal.
The nonchalance (or boredom?) of the king’s stance is a wonderfully vivid touch to the description (and it must have been a sturdy sideboard to support the leaning king as well as the weight of all those gifts – the portrait above was painted by Holbein at around that time). And I feel I can empathise a little with Mr (Brian) Tuke (below, again by Holbein); in our house on Christmas Day I have the equivalent job – trying to make a list of presents and their givers, in all the chaos of the unwrapping.
The purpose of my list is so that thank-you letters can be written to the right people for the right things. This leads me to the second thing with which I shall leave you. The recent death of the very great Ronald Searle has sent me scurrying to my shelves in search of Molesworth – and I do think that for anyone tackling children’s thank-you notes, The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter (from How To Be Topp by Searle and Geoffrey Willans) is required reading. If anyone hasn’t encountered it before, you can find it here.
Happy New Year!
H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, and by Penguin in Australia.
H.M. Castor's website is here.