January 1st has been known as New Year’s Day since the Roman times. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was the first day of the new year. Different countries and even different regions of countries celebrated the beginning of the year on various dates: Two common dates were March 25 and December 25. But let’s see how this all played out for Britain…
In 46 BCE Julius Caesar gathered together his best astronomers and mathematicians in Rome to design a new calendar. He modestly called it the Julian calendar after himself. It set out the first day of the year as January 1, and it did a pretty good job of keeping track of all the days and months.
However, there was a small miscalculation of 11 minutes per year. This doesn’t sound like much, but it added one extra day every 128 years. After being in use for a thousand years or so, the Julian calendar was getting off track and the months were starting to drift into the wrong seasons.
In 1582 the Vatican stepped in to sort things out. They came up with a new calendar, called the Gregorian Calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII. It kept New Year’s Day as January 1 and put everything back in order. This new calendar was adopted by most of Europe, which was under the Pope’s authority.
England’s Having None of It
However, nearly 50 years earlier, King Henry VIII of England had thumbed his nose at the Pope and declared himself no longer under his control. So his Protestant daughter, now Queen Elizabeth I, wasn’t about to let Rome tell her what day it was. She was having none of this newfangled calendar.
So for 170 years Britain carried on with its old calendar, getting further and further out of sync with the rest of Europe. Business people who traded with others around the globe had to use both dates to avoid confusion.
By 1752 the British calendar was 11 days off. It was time for Britain to swallow its pride and conform. It adopted the Gregorian calendar in September 1752. But what to do with those 11 extra days?
Missing: 11 Days
They decided to just skip those pesky, surplus days. So everyone went to sleep on September 2, 1752 and woke up the next morning to September 14. To some people this was very disconcerting and they feared that they might be losing 11 days of their lives.
However, at least one man saw an opportunity to make some money out of these missing days. He bet anyone who would take the bait that he could dance nonstop for 12 days. Of course, that seemed impossible and he had a few takers. He waited until the evening of September 2. He began his little jig and danced all night long. When he stopped the next day, it was September 14 and he collected his money on a technicality.
British Tax Year
All this calendar confusion actually clears up something that I’ve wondered about since we moved to England several years ago: Why does the UK tax year start on April 6?
As it turns out, this odd date can be traced back to the “Great British Calendar Changeover.” Under the old Julian calendar, even though January 1 had been called New Year’s Day, both the civil year and tax year began on March 25. When the country changed to the Gregorian calendar, they also changed the first day of the year to January 1.
You Still Have to Pay Your Taxes
The government didn’t mind changing the start date of their civil year or losing 11 calendar days. However, they drew the line at the thought of a shortened tax year. So the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury decided not to align the tax year with the civil year. The old tax year was March 25 to March 24 and they just moved it up 11 days so they could get their full 365 days’ worth of taxes. This made the tax year April 5 to April 4.
This remained the British tax year until 1800. 1800 would have been a leap year under the old calendar, but was not one under the new calendar. Again, the Treasury wasn’t about to lose out on a day of tax collecting, so they moved the tax year one day ahead and this is where it has remained. Finally, the mystery of the April 6 to April 5 tax year is solved!
Here’s wishing you a very happy New Year – whenever you decide to celebrate it!
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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