New Year, Old Calendar: The Origins and Controversy of the Gregorian Calendar
The most commonly used civil calendar today is known as the Gregorian calendar, which is also called the Western calendar, or the Christian calendar. This calendar was named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582. Today, the Gregorian calendar is part of our everyday lives, and most of us use it without really knowing its backstory, the reasons for its introduction, and the effects that it had on the world.
Introduction of the Julian Calendar
Prior to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the calendar that was used in Europe was the Julian calendar. This calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, and took effect in 45 BC. It became the predominant calendar in the territories controlled by the Romans.
Example of a Pre-Julian Roman calendar called the ‘Fasti Praenestini.’ (Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5)
When the Roman Empire was Christianized, the Julian calendar was adopted as the Christian liturgical calendar. This allowed the use of the Julian calendar to spread eventually into areas that were beyond the borders of the Empire, such as Russia and the New World.
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The Need for a New Calendar
One of the problems with the Julian calendar is that the length of the solar year is miscalculated by 11 minutes each year. This meant that the calendar had fallen out of sync with the seasons over time. More importantly for the pope, the celebration of Easter, which had been traditionally observed on the 21st of March, was falling further away from the spring equinox with each passing year. Pope Gregory desired to rectify this problem by correcting the miscalculations in the Julian calendar.
Roman mosaic of the four seasons from Acholla, 3rd century AD. (CC BY SA 2.0)
Once these errors were rectified, the Gregorian calendar was introduced by the pope in 1582, under the papal bull known as ‘Inter gravissimas’. By this time, however, the East-West Schism between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox had been going on for over 500 years, and the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe had been underway for slightly more than 50 years. Thus, the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 was adopted mainly by countries under Roman Catholic rule, including Spain, Portugal (and the overseas possessions of these two countries) and France.
The first page of the papal bull "Inter Gravissimas" by which Pope Gregory XIII introduced his calendar. (Public Domain)
Rejection to the calendar
Countries under Protestant rule initially rejected the Gregorian calendar. Due to the calendar’s ties with the papacy, these countries perceived the switch as a plot aimed at bringing them back to the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, countries belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church did not readily adopt the Gregorian calendar.
Eastern Orthodox calendar of Saints. (Public Domain)
Nevertheless, these countries too adopted the Gregorian calendar eventually. For example, the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire. Thus, in 1752, Great Britain and its territories switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. It was necessary to align the calendar used in England with the rest of Europe, therefore it was decided that the 2nd of September 1752 (Wednesday) would be followed by the 14th of September 1752 (Thursday), resulting in a loss of 11 days.
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"Give us our Eleven Days"
This change in calendars supposedly resulted in civil unrest and riots in England. In a 1755 painting by William Hogarth entitled ‘An Election Entertainment’ - referring to the 1754 elections, a campaign banner with the words ‘Give us our Eleven Days’ can be seen. It has been suggested that this might have given rise to the misinterpretation that people actually took to the streets to demand the government to return the 11 days that were lost. Most historians today believe that these riots either did not take place at all or that they were grossly exaggerated.
An Election Entertainment. By William Hogarth (c. 1755) (Public Domain)
Later Acceptance of the Gregorian Calendar
Great Britain, however, was not the last country to adopt the Gregorian calendar. The former Ottoman Empire only began using the Gregorian calendar in 1917. The switch, however, was from the Rumi calendar, which was based on the Julian calendar, though starting with the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s Hijra in AD 622.
Another country that adopted the Gregorian calendar quite late was Russia, which only began using it in 1918. Nevertheless, the Julian calendar is still being used today by the Russian Orthodox Church. This can be seen in the fact that Christmas is celebrated in Russia on the 7th of January, which is the Julian equivalent of the Gregorian 25th of December.
Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. (Public Domain)
Cohen, J., 2012. 6 Things You May Not Know About the Gregorian Calendar. [Online]
Available at: http://www.history.com/news/6-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-gregorian-calendar
Johnson, B., 2015. Give us our eleven days. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Give-us-our-eleven-days/
Stokel-Walker, C., 2013. Why Our Calendars Skipped 11 Days in 1752. [Online]
Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/51370/why-our-calendars-skipped-11-days-1752
Tøndering, C., 2015. The Gregorian calendar. [Online]
Available at: http://www.tondering.dk/claus/cal/gregorian.php
Tøndering, C., 2015. The Julian calendar. [Online]
Available at: http://www.tondering.dk/claus/cal/julian.php
www.timeanddate.com, 2015. From the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. [Online]
Available at: http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/julian-gregorian-switch.html