Today is New Year’s Eve, in the Julian calendar

Today is January 13, 2019, in our calendar, the Gregorian calendar, but it marks the last day of the year by the Julian calendar, which was first introduced to the world by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. The Gregorian calendar’s January 14, 2019, is January 1 of the same year by the Julian calendar. It’s the Julian New Year, sometimes called the Old New Year or the Orthodox New Year.

marble bust of Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar proposed a reformed calendar. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Best New Year’s gift ever! EarthSky moon calendar for 2019

Historians and other chronologists care about the Julian calendar because it was used worldwide for over 16 centuries. Some – for example, the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church – still use the Julian calendar to this day.

But most of us don’t use it. After its inception on October 15, 1582, more and more people slowly but surely came to adopt the Gregorian calendar, which is now used nearly everywhere worldwide. However, it’s important to keep in mind that chronologists give the dates of astronomical events that occurred before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by the Julian calendar date. For instance, equinoxes and solstices and any lunar and solar eclipses happening before October 15, 1582, are dated by the Julian calendar.

The transition from Julian calendar to Gregorian calendar wasn’t quick or easy, but the more accurate calendar eventually prevailed. In the old calendar system, there was an accumulated discrepancy between the calendar dates and the actual time of the Northern Hemisphere’s spring equinox. Pope Gregory decreed that October 4, 1582, on the Julian calendar was to be followed by October 15, 1582, in the newly established Gregorian calendar.

That transition is illustrated by the calendar below:

A calendar, showing the month of October, with 11 days missing.

When the world began its transition from the old-style Julian calendar to the newly established Gregorian calendar, some calendar dates had to disappear. Pope Gregory decreed that the Julian date October 4, 1582, was to be followed by the Gregorian date October 15, 1582.

But not everyone converted all at once. England, for example, with its large empire and separate church kept its separate calendar, too – the Julian calendar – for another two centuries. But, as explained on mentalfloss.com:

… it all got rather confusing: People often headed up letters they wrote with two dates – one using the new Gregorian calendar in fashion in mainland Europe, and the other using the old-fashioned Julian calendar.

Eventually, Britain adopted the new Gregorian calendar – the calendar we use today – with its Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750. According to some, that adoption prompted the English calendar riots of 1752: Give us our 11 days! – the English calendar riots of 1752.

Meanwhile, others say the English calendar riots are a myth.

chaotic scene with lots of bewigged men gambling and eating

View larger. | Painting by William Hogarth, ca. 1755, includes the famous protest slogan against the Gregorian calendar: “Give us our 11 Days.” It’s at the lower right (on black banner on floor under foot). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a bit more about why the new Gregorian calendar was so sorely needed. The Northern Hemisphere’s spring equinox is supposed to fall on or near March 21 every year. However, the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the spring equinox put the calendar out of step with the seasons. In the year 1582, for instance, the spring equinox came on March 10 by the Julian calendar.

The old style Julian calendar declared every fourth year a leap year of 366 days. This made the average length of the Julian year at 365.25 days, which is about 11 minutes too long relative to the year as measured by the spring equinox.

Eleven minutes doesn’t sound like much. But over the long period of time – over centuries and millennia – the accumulative error of one day in about 128 years is difficult to ignore.

The Gregorian calendar tweaked the rules a bit, to bring the calendar in closer agreement with the seasonal year. Century years which are not equally divisible by 400 are not considered leap years, in the Gregorian calendar. The year 2000 was a leap year, and the year 2400 will be a leap year, but the years 2100, 2200 and 2300 will be common years of 365 days.

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Bottom line: January 13, 2019, marks the last day of the year in the Julian calendar. This post explains why we switched from this calendar. Happy Julian New Year!

Bruce McClure

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