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Until 1752, England and its British dominions, including those in America, celebrated March 25th as the first day of the calendar year.

Since ancient times, England had used the “Julian calendar”, instituted by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE.  The Julian calendar followed a solar year of 365 days, but had a somewhat inaccurate method of calculating leap years, which over the centuries led to the addition of too many extra days.  Originally, January 1 was the date of the new year in the Julian calendar, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, the date gradually changed in various parts of Europe to March 25, to conform with Christian festival of the Annunciation.  England adopted March 25th as New Year’s day in the twelfth century.

In 1582, in order to make sure that all Christians celebrated Easter on the correct date, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar, known as the “Gregorian calendar”.  In the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was the first day of the new year, and a revised method for calculating leap years kept the calendar from becoming unhinged from the movement of the sun and the seasons.  (*Pope Gregory’s papal bull announcing the new calendar did not explicitly specify January 1 as the beginning of the year, but he acknowledged as much in his reform of the Catholic liturgical calendar in 1582, which ends on December 31.  In fact, many countries were already using January 1 as New Year’s day before they adopted the Gregorian calendar.)  Protestant England did not accept the new papal calendar, and stuck to the Julian calendar, as well as the New Year date of March 25.  (Scotland changed New Year’s day to January 1 in 1600, but otherwise continued to use the Julian calendar until 1752.)

In 1752, England finally adopted the “Gregorian” or “New Style” calendar, in order to bring its dating in accord with the rest of Europe and avoid confusion.

The Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750 (24 Geo. 2. c.23), which passed in the English Parliament in 1750, spelled out the reasons for and the steps in changing over from the “Old Style” to the “New Style” of dating.

The Parliament claimed that the Julian calendar then in use, and the start of the New Year on March 25, were

“attended with divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom.”

[*The Statutes at Large: From the Magna Charta, to the end of the eleventh Parliament of Great Britain, Anno 1761 [continued to 1861]. (J. Bentham, 1865), p. 186, chapter 23]

Also called “An Act for regulating the Commencement of the Year, and for correcting the Calendar now in use”, the Act can be read in its entirety in a more readable form (in modern script) through the government of Great Britain:

In Massachusetts, this law was reproduced in the laws of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England, available in a collected edition The Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay, carefully collected from the publick records and ancient printed books… (Boston: T.B. Wait & Co., 1814; published by order of the General Court.)  [A.D. 1751], chapter 243.  This book is available online through Google books, and several print copies are owned by the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries.

The change was made in two steps.  December 31, 1751 was followed by January 1, 1752 (the switch from March 25 to January 1 as the first day of the year).  September 2, 1752 was followed by September 14, 1752 (dropping 11 days in order to agree with the date of the Gregorian calendar).  Furthermore, the method for calculating leap years was changed to the more accurate method of the Gregorian calendar.

The change went off without a hitch, because popular sources such as the Boston Gazette and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack included explanations on how to calculate the changes in the calendar.

For historians researching early colonial records, however, the change can cause confusion.  Between 1582 and 1752, not only were there two calendars in use in Europe, but there were even two different starts of the year in England.  The official start of the year was March 25, but many people celebrated January 1 as the “New Year’s Day”, following the continental example, and January 1 was often cited as such in almanacs. Therefore, a system of “double dating” was often used in English and colonial records.  For dates falling between the new “New Year” (January 1) and the old “New Year” (March 25), the year could be denoted as two years separated by a slash.  For example, “March 18, 1642/43”.   In the absence of double dating or other evidence, one may not know to which year a document is referring, according to modern reckoning.

George Washington was born on February 11, 1731 under the Julian calendar, but after the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, his birthday became February 22, 1732.

Useful information on the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, and the history of calendar changes may be found in articles by the Connecticut State Library and on Wikipedia.

A chart of when different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar:

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