Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year! Or, is it?

During the Colonial period, British Americans celebrated January 1 as the first day of the new year. In what can only be assumed to have been an attempt to confuse future scholars, they also celebrated March 25 as the first of the new year.

This holdover from the Julian calendar marked the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which Mary was told of the impending birth of Jesus. Also called the Incarnation of Jesus and Lady Day, March 25 may have been observed more as the administrative beginning of the new year. In Colonial Maryland all landholders were required to pay their semiannual quit rents to Lord Baltimore on the feast days of the Annunciation and Michaelmas (September 29). Acts of the General Assembly and other legal documents were dated, for example, March 24, 1660/1 on one day and those on the next day would be dated March 25, 1661. The first year indicated the Old Style (sometimes expressed as March 24, 1660 OS) and the second year represented the New Style. Britain, including British America, maintained this system until 1752.

Although Brits at the time probably took all of this in stride, this awkward system can confuse the modern scholar. If a document is dated February 11, 1660, without any other qualifiers, was it written in 1660 or 1661?

The 21st century is not without its calendrical confusions. Archaeologists might refer to 1660 as AD 1660 (Anno Domini, the conventional form), 1660 CE (Common Era, an attempt to minimize Western European-Christian myopia), or a radiocarbon equivalent expressed in years before the present (yBP). Add to that the various systems employed by cultures around the world (the Jewish and Chinese systems are most familiar to Westerners, but there are many more), and it is a wonder we all know what we are talking about when referring to past events. Meanings, however, generally can be inferred from context and calendrical systems are so rich in historical and cultural meaning that it is a great shame when any system is lost.

Perhaps every day is the beginning of a new year for some culture and should be treated as such by all of us.


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