20. Happy New Year, Whenever That Is

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To end the year, here are some genealogical brain teasers. Please think of an answer for each of the following questions:

  1. When did the the year not start on January 1st?
  2. When did a month only have 7 days?
  3. When could “7ber” be used as an abbreviation for September?

The answers? It turns out these are trick questions, as the answer is the same in all three cases: From the year 1155 to 1752 — but only in England and (in the later part of that period) the rest of the British Empire [1]. For those of us tracing ancestry in the United States, and backwards in many cases to England, Ireland, or Wales, the calendar can play some elvish tricks leading up to January 1st and beyond.

The New Year

Remembering that we are considering the British Empire, within that long 600 year period the year was considered to start on the day of the church celebration of Jesus’ Incarnation. That fell on March 25th.

Contrary to what you may have learned in grade school, switching the year’s beginning from March 25th to January 1st had little to do with the Roman miscorrection of day length in the Julian calendar. That 11 minute per year miscorrection led to the astronomical calendar gradually drifting from the legal calendar, a discrepancy that by 1752 had grown to 11 days. However, when the discrepancy was corrected by abandoning the faulty Julian calendar for the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752, it was simultaneously decided to adopt January 1st as New Year’s Day.

Why January 1st? That was New Year’s in the Roman calendar. The change in 1752 took us back to the very origins of our calendar.

A Short March?

The second question in the list above is actually doubly tricky, because it involves two different ways to view the month of March in the Julian calendar. On the one hand, before 1752 there was only one March in the calendar, a month like ours of 31 days. But on the other hand, when the New Year started on March 25th, the period of March 25th through the 31st fell in a different year than the days before it. In that sense, March had only 7 days — in the new year. Of course, the new year got the remaining days back, but at the end rather than the beginning of the year!

Genealogical Confusion

To say that this situation leads to confusion in genealogical circles would be an understatement. If a writer states a date such as “1 March 1750”, what year is meant? Is it the year that in the old calendar had January, February, and most of March in 1750, but the rest of the months in 1751? Or has the writer mentally converted the date to the modern January-December yearly calendar, so that the date actually fell in 1749 in the old calendar? A brain itch to be sure.

To avoid this problem, “double dating” has been widely adopted. If the date is from the calendar being used at the time, the 1 March 1750 date becomes 1 Mar 1750/1. Otherwise it becomes 1 March 1749/50. Double dating should not be considered a complication as genealogical novices often think, but rather a clarification. Without it there may be no way to know which of two years is meant.

When dealing with primary records, there is much less confusion because the date is stated in terms of the calendar being used at the time. Thus in a church christening record, for example, 1 March 1750 means March in the old year. Nevertheless, in our era it is best practice to state such a date using double dating, becoming in this case 1 March 1750/1.

7ber, or September To You

Once when consulting eastern Pennsylvania Quaker records, I ran across a month stated as “7ber”. It didn’t take too long to realize what was meant. Because March was the 1st month of the year (even though the year didn’t get going until the 25th), the 7th month was 6 months after that, or September.

In fact it is quite common to find numbered months in primary records. Thus, for example, the 6th day of the 4rd month of the year 1730 is actually 6 June 1730. When confronted by a numbered month before 1753, the general solution is to add two to it, then convert from that number to the name of the month.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere

So much for the British Empire, but what about elsewhere? One immediate complication traces to the fact that Scotland did not become part of the British Empire until 1603. As an independent country, it made the switch from a March to a January New Year much earlier, in 1600 to be exact. This discrepancy with England remained in force until the calendar was unified in 1752 [1]. So even for those of exclusively British ancestry, there is the possibility of confusion when crossing the Scottish border. As an imaginary example, consider the befuddlement of a poor genealogist discovering that an ancestor died on 12 February 1690 in Allanton, Scotland, only to be buried 10 miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, 3 days later on 15 February 1689!

In other countries the confusion can be even greater. Even leaving aside periods during which the New Year began on something other than January 1st or March 25th (e.g., September 1st in Russia, or dates tied either to Easter or the autumn equinox in France), the shift to a January 1st New Year happened in different years in different countries. It occurred in 1544 in Germany, 1559 in Sweden, 1576 in Holland, and as late as 1918 in Turkey [1].

Honor the Goal

¬†The goal in all of this is to state dates in a way that allows the construction of a coherent, properly ordered sequence of events in our ancestors’ lives. By consistently using an unambiguous dating system, apparent contradictions can be avoided that might otherwise prompt false conclusions. In this regard, double dating is an essential tool of the genealogist’s craft.


[1] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_calendar (2015).

Picture Attribution:

Adaptation of “Logo of the 205/2016 Public Domain Day in Poland” by Cienkamila, retrieved from¬†https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Logo_DDP_2016.svg (2015), used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.