How country folk resisted moving Christmas

While transcribing a description of the upper Swaledale township of Muker from an 1840 gazetteer of the North Riding of Yorkshire, I came across the phrase ‘Sheep fairs are held on the Wednesday before Old Christmas Day.’ It illustrated how more than 80 years after the nation had changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, there was, especially in country districts, a continuing reluctance to let go of the old system.

As early as the 1500s it had been realised by Catholic academics in Europe that the inaccurate Julian calendar was gradually falling farther out of synchrony with the solar year. And so in 1582 a new calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, was introduced and  adopted by the major European Catholic nations. Protestant nations gradually followed. By the time the British government made the switch, in 1752, it was necessary to skip 11 days. So the day after September 2 was declared September 14. At the same time, the first day of the year, which had previously been Lady Day, March 25, was switched to January 1. The consequences were considerable.

The commercial year had always been divided into quarters, beginning with Lady Day and followed by Midsummer Day on June 24, Michaelmas Day on September 29, and Christmas Day on December 25. These dates were important in the farming calendar, especially Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, which was traditionally the start date for farm tenancies, and Michaelmas Day, the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, which traditionally marked the start of the farm accounting year, after the results of the harvest were in and totted up. In the new calendar, these quarter days remained nominally on the same dates but were now 11 days earlier than their previous positions.

Many people were reluctant to accept the change, and the government didn’t exactly lead by example. It realised that the tax year that had started on March 25 1752 would now be severely curtailed, leading to huge loss of revenue. So it decided, as an exception, that the tax year would not conform to the new calendar year. Even by sticking to the old start date, the government would still lose 11 days’ tax revenue, and so it simply added 11 days to the quarter ending on Lady Day, extending it to April 5, which became widely known as ‘Old Lady Day’. Nearly 50 years later the government’s avarice had not diminished when in 1801 there was another slippage of a day between the two calendars, and so the start of the tax year was extended again to April 6. Since then, common sense has prevailed and the date of the new tax year has remained fixed.

As well as having commercial significance, these quarter days were also long-established religious festivals, which was even more reason for people to find it difficult to let go of their old positions in the year. And so in addition to Old Lady Day, people started referring to the new July 6 as Old Midsummer Day, the new October 11 as Old Michaelmas Day, and the new January 6 as Old Christmas Day. And, as the North Riding gazetteer I was transcribing shows, even as late as 1840, rural folk were still using these ‘old’ festival days to position the dates of their traditional fairs.

In 1901 there was a further day’s slippage between the two calendars so that, for example, Old Christmas Day became January 7. It was probably about then that recognition of the old dates started to diminish in Britain. Although of course even today Christians of the Russian and Egyptian Orthodox Churches, who remain committed to the festival days of the Julian calendar, currently celebrate Christmas Day on Gregorian January 7. It will move to January 8 in 2101. For more on upper Swaledale in 1840 go to Life in the 1840s.

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About Will Swales

Amateur historian with a special interest in Swaledale, Yorkshire.
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