Posted by: Christine | March 25, 2012

Happy New Year

No this isn’t a post left over from three months ago.

It isn’t that long ago that today would have been New Year’s Day, as the year began on the 25th March. Why? Well the original calendar was based on the life of Jesus Christ. Therefore the year should start on Christmas Day? No, it actually started exactly nine months earlier on Lady Day, the date of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she would give birth to Jesus.

So what has that got to do with Family History? Quite a lot. If we still used this system,  today would the first day of 2012, and that means that yesterday, 24th March, was the last day of the previous year. In fact all the dates from January 1st were in 2011! Now think about all the information we use for creating our family trees, in particular Parish Registers.

Imagine John Smith married Mary Brown in May 1711 and nine months later little William Smith is born. They take him to the local church where he is baptised – in February 1711! Three hundred years later someone transcribes that parish register, you find the entry, perhaps online. You assume that John and Mary had been naughty and had a child before they were married – an innocent couple have been unjustly maligned! Even worse, from your point of view, you may discount William as a child of John and Mary, causing mistakes in your tree.

The lesson here is, as with all historical information, you must go to the original source. In this case look at the original entry in the parish register. There you might see that for each year dates start at the end of March and end at the beginning of that month. This becomes difficult in a small parish where there may only be a few entries per year, so look for any date from March 25th to December entered before a date from January to March 24th. Of course some registers listed events in a year starting in January.You may need to look at several years either side to see how the entries were entered. If baptisms, marriages and burials were entered together (sometimes they were entered in different sections of the register) you will see that John and Mary’s marriage was entered before William’s baptism. All reputations restored . Unless of course William was born before they married and not baptised till after – but that’s another story!

So if an event occurs between January 1st and March 24th how can we be certain which year is meant? We can add Old Style (O.S.) or New Style (N.S.) after the date, so William’s baptism can be written  1711 O.S. or 1712 N.S. A better way of writing it, and how these dates may have been written at the time, is 1711/12. Your family history program should allow you to enter dates this way and you will always know the date is correct.

So when did all this change? The modern way of recording dates officially started in 1752 when we changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. (See here  for more information about calendars.) In the process of bringing our calendar into line with the rest of Europe, we lost 11 days when the date went direct from 2nd September 1752 to 14th September 1752. Apparently there were riots because people thought they had lost eleven days from their lives.

There is one survival of this change today. Have you ever wondered why the tax year starts on April 5th? It is eleven days after 25th March – the start of the Old Style year. The taxman wasn’t going to lose those eleven days!

And of course, by complete co-incidence, This “New Years Day” coincides with the start of British Summer Time. Another small example of altering the calendar.

So – do you know what time it is?



  1. Nicely concise, Christine. Our local church has a wall monument to a poor little baby who appears to have died before he was born! As to Summer Time – it’s also known as ‘Daylight Saving’, but no one can show me a single second of daylight that’s been saved by these horological gymnastics!

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