The first day of January marks the beginning of a new calendar year in Charleston, as it does in most other places in the world, but this holiday did not exist in the early days of our community, or anywhere in the colonies that became the United States of America. For the first 81 years of life here in the English colony of South Carolina, we officially celebrated the start of the new year on March 25th. More than just a curious old tradition, this is a very important fact that should be familiar to anyone interested in the history of Charleston, or anyone studying the history of their own family. In early America, the concept of dating the new year from January 1st was quite literally a foreign concept. The adoption of this new “new year” practice in 1752 was part of a remarkable cultural shift that had lasting repercussions in Charleston and the United States in general.
The story of when and how this shift occurred is relatively straightforward, but explaining why it took place will require a bit of deep background. Ancient background, in fact. Set your time machine for the distant past, to beginning of the concept of time itself.
Most of the early calendar systems developed by various civilizations around the world were based on observations of the changing seasons over the course of a solar year, and the phases of the moon during the solar year. Think of the Mayan calendar, for example, which was very much in the news a few years ago. Most ancient calendars did not place the beginning of the new year on what we now call January 1st. For ancient cultures living in northern latitudes, such as Scandinavia, the new year began with the winter solstice, around what we now call December 21st. In Mediterranean cultures, the winter solstice was not as noticeable. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for example, is usually celebrated in September. The Islamic New Year usually falls sometime between mid-August and mid-September. Similarly, the Chinese New Year falls somewhere between mid-January and mid-February. There are a lot of other examples, but for the moment let’s focus on the cultural roots of South Carolina.
We can thank the ancient Romans for our tradition of marking the beginning of the new calendar year on the first day January. Our calendar, or at least an early version of it, was created by Roman and Egyptian astronomers approximately 2,500 years ago. In 46 BC, during the reign of Julius Caesar, the Roman empire adopted a major revision of the Roman calendar, which became known as the “Julian calendar.” A century later, as Christianity began to spread across the Mediterranean, which was then under Roman control, the nascent Catholic church also adopted the Julian calendar.
Meanwhile, in the islands that now form Great Britain and Ireland, things were different. Celtic people observed the passing of the new year around the first of November (our Halloween is a vestige of that practice). A few centuries later, during Viking times, the Anglo-Saxon folks of pre-Christian England observed the winter solstice as the beginning of their new year. When Norman invaders overran England in 1066, they enforced the Julian Calendar and the Roman tradition of observing January 1st as the official start of the new year. Less than a century later, however, in 1155, the Anglo-Norman church and government of England adopted the ecclesiastical holy day called “Lady Day” (March 25th) as the first day of their new year.
Lady Day is the English name for the traditional Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, which is celebrated every year on the 25th day of March. Since it is roughly coincident with the vernal equinox (the first day of spring), Lady Day was adopted in Anglo-Norman England as the first day of the new year. Although the government and church of medieval England embraced the Julian calendar, they simultaneously arranged their English calendar-year around what they called the four “quarter days,” which included Lady Day (their New Year’s Day), Midsummer Day (June 24th), Michaelmas (September 29th), and Christmas (December 25th).
Meanwhile, over in Europe, many Christians were becoming frustrated with the shortcomings of the ancient Julian Calendar. (Time does not permit a full discussion of the confusing mathematical flaws of the Julian Calendar here, but you can find books and articles about that topic at your local library.) Over the centuries, the calendar dates of holy days became increasingly out-of-sync with the cycles of the moon and the annual progression of the solstices and equinoxes. The feast of Easter, for example, was slowly drifting into summer. After years of many great minds contemplating a new system, a major change finally occurred in 1582. In that year, Pope Gregory XIII endorsed the suggestions of Europe’s best astronomers and mathematicians and adopted a calendar we call the “Gregorian calendar.” In order to adjust for the deficiencies of the Julian calendar, the new Gregorian calendar skipped ahead ten days in the month of October 1582, as a one-time fix.
One by one, as the various kingdoms of continental Europe switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the practice of observing January 1st as the start of the new year became more common. The Romans had embraced this practice many centuries earlier, but many people in medieval Europe who used the Julian calendar also clung to local new-year traditions. At any rate, by the early 1600s, both the new-and-improved Gregorian calendar and the practice of marking the beginning of the new year on January 1st had become standard practices across most of Europe. Except in England. And as England began planting colonies in the New World in the 1600s, settlers carried the old Julian Calendar with them to places like Virginia, Barbados, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.
From the arrival of the first settlers in Charles Town in 1670, the people and the government of early South Carolina used the ancient Julian calendar to record their dates and to document their lives. Government timelines for such things as the payment of taxes, the mustering of the militia, and terms of elected service, all revolved around the notion that legal calendar year commenced on Lady Day, March 25th. Landlords collected rents on the “quarter days”—Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and Christmas. Schools arranged their curriculum around the quarter days. People purchased groceries and clothes and firewood on credit and then settled their accounts on the quarter days. January 1st was just an ordinary day in the fourth quarter of the year. These were cultural norms of early South Carolina for the first eighty-one years of this province.
While life in South Carolina and the rest of the English colonies revolved around the Julian calendar, the people living here recognized that their Spanish and French neighbors were different. Not just culturally different, but also chronologically different. The Gregorian calendar, adopted by most European nations, skipped ten days in the year 1582 in order to restore the solstices and equinoxes back to their proper dates. By the early 1700s, the Julian calendar was eleven days behind the Gregorian calendar. Thus, when a fleet of Spanish and French ships invaded Charleston harbor in 1706, we recorded the event commencing on August 24th, while the Spanish and French recorded the event beginning on September 4th. Future president George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11th, 1731, according to the Julian calendar, while that day was recorded as February 22nd, 1732, on the Gregorian calendar.
As international trade and diplomacy increased in the eighteenth century, the English government began to view the differences and defects of the Julian calendar as an unnecessary handicap. One the one hand, their adherence to it was a tradition nearly five hundred years old. On the other hand, however, the English resistance to the Gregorian calendar was founded on their aversion to the Pope and to the Catholic Church in general. King Henry VIII had steered England away from Catholicism in the 1530s, so when Pope Gregory promulgated the new-and-improved calendar in 1582, the English nation willfully ignored it. By the mid-1700s, however, England and its colonies were growing increasing weary of using the old, defective calendar that all their neighbors had abandoned years earlier.
In the 24th year of the reign of King George II (that is, in the year 1750–51), the British Parliament ratified “Act for regulating the commencement of the year; and for correcting the calendar in use.” The lengthy text of this law describes in detail how the new calendar would work. It could have simply said “we’re going to adopt the Gregorian calendar,” but the English refused to acknowledge the Catholic Pope. You can find the full text of the “Calendar Act” of 1751 online, so I’ll just mention the highlights most pertinent to the present discussion.
First, the British “Calendar Act” stipulated that the year 1751 would officially commence (as usual) on March 25th and proceed (as usual) through December 31st, which would be observed as the final day of the year 1751. The following day, January 1st, would then mark the beginning of the year 1752, and every year thereafter would commence on the first day of January. This change marked the end of the “Old Style” calendar and the beginning of the “New Style” calendar.
Second, the “Calendar Act” of 1751 ordered that eleven days would be omitted from the month of September in the year 1752, as a one-time correction to synchronize the English calendar (and that of its colonies) with the calendars used by everyone else in Europe. More specifically, the law stated that Wednesday, the 2nd day of September, would be immediately and officially followed by Thursday, the 14th day of September. Rents and fees and fines, and any matter tied to the counting of days, would have to be adjusted accordingly.
Here in Charleston, we celebrated our first “new” New Year’s Day on January 1st, 1752. On that date, the local newspaper, the South Carolina Gazette, printed the full text of the British “Calendar Act” so that everyone could adjust their lives accordingly. On 10 January 1752, the Gazette also published a long essay containing an “Account of the Changes the Year has heretofore undergone, and the Reasons of them.” This front-page essay contains a lot of useful notes about the origins of the Roman calendar and the later reforms made under Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII. If you’d like to read the full text, I encourage you to drop by our library’s South Carolina History Room and view the 1752 newspaper on microfilm.
Altering the date of the beginning of the new year was only the first change instituted by the British “Calendar Act.” The second, more confusing step was to omit eleven days from the year 1752, which was ordered to take place in early September. In compliance with the law, on Tuesday, the first day of September 1752, the South Carolina Gazette published a front-page reminder of the upcoming disappearance of eleven calendar days: “Readers observe, that Thursday next will be the 14th of September, N[ew]. S[tyle].” That is to say, Charlestonians went to bed on the evening of Wednesday, September 2nd, 1752, and awoke on the morning of Thursday, September 14th. That might seem like a mind-altering shift, but nothing really changed. Our sun rises and sets on a regular cycle governed by the laws of nature, but the naming and numbering of days is an artificial construct invented by humans. But enough philosophy, let’s get back to history.
To recap, the year 1751, which officially began on the old “New Year” date of March 25th, was the shortest year in South Carolina (and American) history, consisting of only 282 days. The year 1752 started in the new fashion on January 1st, but, after skipping over eleven days in September, it consisted of just 355 days. Finally, the year 1753 was the first fully normal “new” calendar year in the modern history of South Carolina, and we’ve followed the “New Style” pattern ever since.
Despite the numerous advantages of the Gregorian calendar, some folks stubbornly clung to the old ways. For years after the great calendar shift of 1751–52, for example, some South Carolinians celebrated “old Christmas day,” which had shifted eleven days to January 5th. In the years preceding the American Revolution, a few landlords and merchants in Charleston still organized their business calendars around the traditional “quarter days” of the Julian calendar. Almanacs and account books everywhere had to be adjusted. It took time for colonial America to settle in to the “New Style” calendar.
Perhaps most importantly for us living in the twenty-first century, we have to think carefully about calculating the birth and death dates of everyone who lived prior to 1752. For example, after the calendar shift of 1752, did George Washington celebrate his birthday on February 11th or February 22nd; and was he born in 1731 or 1732? The answer is, of course, yes. Both are technically correct. The key to settling this issue is simply to acknowledge the calendar in use at the time in question. For example, an informed historian will state that George Washington was born on 11 February 1731, “Old Style”, or 22 February 1732, “New Style.” Similarly, when documenting people who were born or died between March 25th and December 31st in South Carolina prior to 1752, one does not have to adjust the year, but one does have to add eleven days to account for the deficiency of the “Old Style” calendar. These are very important things to remember when writing about colonial history, or when documenting your own family genealogy.
For many people, the beginning of the new year is a time for reflection. Every January, we hear speeches about the State of the Union, the State of the State, and even the State of the City, while individually we might be contemplating the State of the Self. Can you imagine making your New Year’s resolutions in late March, right around the first day of spring? Come to think of it, the idea of welcoming the new year and making earnest plans for self-improvement does seem better suited to the time when nature awakes from her long winter’s nap. That practice was once a Charleston tradition, but it passed away, at least legally, in 1752. We can thank the ancient Romans for that. So, in conclusion, I bid you a “happy new New Year!” But don’t be surprised next Lady Day if some fussy historian greets you with the exclamation, “happy old New Year!”