A practical New Year

Continuing with the theme of historical accuracy from my last post, Puzzles in the Historical Record, something can be historically factual, yet inaccurate from an “in practice” perspective. How is this possible?

To give a uniquely Canadian example (apologies to the Brits and Americans out there) on the Monday immediately preceding May 25th, most provinces observe a holiday known as Victoria Day. If anyone two hundred years in the future were to reference this holiday, they would be correct to call it Victoria Day. But very few of us actually call it that. Over the years, the most common reference is the May Two-Four weekend, in honour of a case of beer.

Here’s an example from the past.

When I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, her remarks about New Year’s stuck with me. She noted that up until 1752 New Years was observed on Lady Day, March 25th but for the purpose of not confusing her reader, she referenced January 1st in her novel.

This puzzled me, because at that time, I had been working through the unabridged version of Pepys Diary, and I don’t recall running into any mention that New Years was celebrated in March. For those unfamiliar with Samuel Pepys, he was a senior official in the Navy Office and maintained a detailed diary from 1660 until 1669. During that time, he commented on social engagements, politics and everyday domestic affairs (pun intended).

By John Hayls (1600–1679) (Flickr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By John Hayls (1600–1679) (Flickr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every January 1st entry, Pepys took stock of his finances and/or his health, a report, if you will, about how he did over the past year. It was a New Year’s ritual that any one of us can understand today. His first diary entry was on January 1, 1659/1660 with “Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain…“ More importantly, this is an exercise he does not repeat on the 25th of March.

But notice the year 1659/1660. The transcripts of the calendar of state papers available in British History Online use this same nomenclature for dates referenced in the early part of the year until March 25th. Why? As it turns out, the answer is quite intriguing.

Hillary Mantel is correct (not suggesting that I ever doubted her), but although the official start of the New Year was March 25th, in practice people treated January 1st as the New Year. By recording dates between January 1st and March 24th as 1659/1660, they were showing both the official year and the year in practice.

It’s perhaps a good thing that, in 1752, the law changed to keep in step with the people otherwise I would have recorded today’s date as January 1, 2014/2015. And, no, I’m not going to even touch the Gregorian/Julian calendar change. Perhaps I’ll save that for another blog post.

I wish everyone a happy New Year and the very best in 2015.

Featured picture: “Samuel Pepys diary page 1” by Samuel Pepys – H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899).. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Pepys_diary_page_1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Samuel_Pepys_diary_page_1.jpg


  1. Fantastic!
    Lora Avgeris

    Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network


  2. I continued to be impressed by the scope and depth of your research. Thanks for this, Cryssa.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Gwen. Happy New Year to you. 🙂


  4. samoore777

    Whatever day it is, Cryssa, sounds like Sam Pepys had a great time, eating, drinking, pubbing, seeing a play, ogling women, sitting for a painting….no wait, that’s just about every entry, lol. Sounds like every day was New Year’s to Pepys.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The author, Mary Stiff, had a great deal to protest about, and she was no shrinking violet in her criticism of the Commonwealth (the interim between the Monarchy and the Protectorate). In fact, Mary Stiff and her publication The Good Womens Cryes Against the Excise of All Their Commodities (4 January 1649/1650)* was an absolutely delightful full-on rant against Cromwell and his Regicide cronies in the most entertaining way possible. [*Note: Mary Stiff’s pamphlet would have been printed January 1650, nearly a year after King Charles I’s execution. To read more about date nomenclature, check out this article.] […]


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