WeatherWhys Blog

Happy New Year?

Happy New Year?

It is the beginning of a new month- March. However, for most of recorded history this would have been the beginning of a new year.

All things are fresh and new in the spring. Plants and trees begin to bud and bloom (as noted by the high pollen count lately- got sneezing?) The days are getting longer and it looks as though we’ve made it through another winter. Warmer days are straight ahead. We all know this every year. The return of abundant life is no surprise, so the ancients started their years in the spring. For millennia it was the case. And the first day of the year was March 25th, also known as “Lady Day” in regards to the Virgin Mary. That’s right; the first day of the year wasn’t even the first day of a month. For example, March 24, 1492 was followed by March 25, 1493. This was the Julian calendar concoction devised by the ancient Romans. But Pope Gregory saw that the Julian calendar was slipping a bit, about 11 days by the mid 16th century. That meant Easter, Christmas and other important Christian celebrations were getting farther and farther behind the “real” time as dictated by our position in our orbit around the sun. The reason had to do with a fundamental flaw in the Julian calendar itself. Had this flaw not been corrected, in time the winter solstice would occur in October and high summer would happen in April. Not acceptable, thought the Pope.

So, in 1582 Pope Gregory instituted what has come to be known as the Gregorian calendar. It is the one we use today. In October of that year 6 countries made the switch, including Spain, Italy and Portugal. 11 days evaporated and suddenly it was later than you might have thought, but at least the clock was right. In the new calculation years would begin on the first of January now, instead of March 25th. This is a lot like a civil day which begins at midnight, when it is darkest and we are farthest away from sunrise or sunset. Such is the case with January 1st, only about 10 days away from the winter solstice which is the darkest time of the year. As you might imagine this was a jarring idea for many countries and kingdoms around the world. The arbitrary nature of not starting in spring was disturbing. So for hundreds of years competing calendars were in use. In fact, England didn’t give in and switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752. At the time in the American British colonies, we were using the old Julian calendar (known today as OS for Old Style). George Washington’s birthday was recently celebrated on February 22nd. However, he was actually born on February 11th, 1731 OS (which is today reckoned as February 22, 1732 NS- for New Style). A date was finally set by Great Britain to make the conversion. It would be in September of 1752. Hence, Wednesday September 2, 1752 would be followed by Thursday September 14, 1752. There were riots in London where many people thought they were losing 11 days of their life. This change to the new calendar has continued until the final holdouts reluctantly adopted the Gregorian calendar. The Soviet Union came around in 1922, Greece in 1923 and Turkey in 1926. It took 344 years to seal the deal for everyone. Pope Gregory would have been proud.

Months, on the other hand, have not undergone changes. You are aware of the names of the last 4 months of the year. “Sept, Oct, Nov and Dec” are all Latin prefixes for 7, 8, 9 and 10 respectively. And while September is not the 7th month as its name suggests, remember that it used to be- back when the year began in March. Also, years needed to be truncated during Julian calendar usage. It would be the last month in which days were subtracted in order for the solar year to be correct. Of course, the last month of the Julian calendar year was February. Today, the necessity for a leap day occurs every fourth year to keep the stars aligned and the calendar correct. We still do that in February And now you know- the rest of the story.