Thursday 12 January 2012


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.


Caroline Lawrence said...

Great post, Harriet! New Year is a complicated time. I recently blogged about how first century Romans celebrated it. ( In his book on Roman festivals called the Fasti, the poet Ovid imagines himself conversing with two-faced Janus.

Ovid: Why does the new year begin in midwinter and not in spring when everything is fresh and new?
Janus: Midwinter marks the death of the old sun and the beginning of the new. The year takes its start from that point.

So even the Romans were confused.

As to why Henry VIII was leaning against his cupboard, he was obviously hung-over! ;-)

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Lovely blog, Harriet. I'm so glad I live in the 21st century where everybody's sorted out when our New Year begins and I'm fascinated to learn why my Tax Year starts on April 6th. Most especially thank you for the Molesworth letter - what a time saver!

catdownunder said...

Oh but there is still Chinese New Year - and my sister's Greek in-laws had Christmas the other day because of the Julian calendar. But, this blog is fascinating when you wonderful people come up with such interesting facts!

Sue Purkiss said...

I never knew that was why September was the seventh month etc. Thanks, Harriet! Oh, and I drove past Chatterton's school house in Bristol the other day, and, because of your post, really 'saw' it for the first time - so thanks for that, too!

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post - complicated subject! My daughter and I were talking about Gawain & the Green Knight recently, in which of course Christmas & New Year are so important - remember the excitemen of Arthur's court at Camelot as the knights rush about presenting each other with New year's gifts?

Just to further complicate the issue, can anyone tell me if that 'cupboard' was really a modern style cupboard, in Tudor times - or, as I was once informed, literally a board with hooks for cups to hang?

H.M. Castor said...

Kath, the cupboard in this case would have been more like what we might call a 'sideboard' or 'dresser' - something constructed specifically to display all the gifts, with open shelves. Very costly plate would often be displayed like this at other times too - designed to impress! What we could call a cupboard, with doors, would have been called a 'press', I believe.

I must look up that passage of Gawain and the Green Knight!

And catdownunder - I would like to know more about the Greek Julian-timing of Christmas, and indeed about Chinese New Year too. When does the year actually change on Chinese calendars? In this modern global economy, do we all have to be synchronised, for the purposes of business transactions, at least?

Linda B-A said...

Hello birds, hello trees, hello sky! Thank you for reminding us of the great Ronald Searle. How I loved Fotheringay Thomas and empathised with him as my daydreams were cut short by a direct hit at my solar plexus at the hand of the Lacrosse captain (true). I shall print off Molesworth's brilliant thank you note for future use. Thanks too, for explaining the seemingly random date of April 6th to start the new tax year.

Emma Pass said...

Fascinating post, Harriet! I too get incredibly confused over the New Year date-change thing - I'd be hopeless if the year didn't actually change until March.

And I had forgotten all about the Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank You Letter - thank you for posting the link! I used to love it (although I'd've been in serious trouble if I'd ever actually sent it to anyone… more's the pity!).

Leslie Wilson said...

Fascinating! Was the Annunciation Lady-Day? I have a dim memory of rents, wages, etc, falling due on Lady-Day in 19th-century novels. And how interesting to know that our tax system keeps a Catholic feast...threads of past belief and custom feeding into current practice.

Penny Dolan said...

Came back to re-read this lovely post and am sure that the Liturgy of the Catholic Church keeps, or did keep, to around Easter for its change to the new (one of three) Liturgical Cycle for the Year.

Thanks for the Moleworth letter from me too!