Originally published in the January 2020 newsletter of the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece.
Calendars are funny things. Our civic year begins on January 1st, and many of us mark it by staying up the night before and partying with friends, singing “Auld Lang Syne”, and making resolutions. Others of us see it simply as another click on the odometer and go to bed at 9:30 PM as usual. Others of us read the newspapers and think of the U2 song with it’s lyric, “Under a blood red sky”.
Religious New Years
As Christians we say that the ecclesiastical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent, which moves around a bit on the calendar as the date of Christmas moves through the week; however, while we may begin a new cycle of annual readings on that day, we do not actually treat it as “New Year’s Day”. The Islamic calendar has a New Year’s Day that, over decades, moves through the seasons, because it is a purely lunar calendar that ignores the sun (except for marking the individual day). The Jewish calendar has Rosh Hoshannah (literally, “Head of the Year”), and it moves around, too, because it’s is also lunar. Unlike the Islamic calendar the Jewish one accommodates itself to the solar year by having a leap month every two or three years, according to a complex formula. Thus it moves around, but only over the space of a month or so, going back and forth.
Fiscal New Years: Jan 1, April 1, and . . . April 6???
The governments of the UK and Canada run a fiscal calendar of 1 April to 31 March. As a Canadian my tax year is the same as the civic calendar, January 1 to December 31. Many of you reading this have, or still are, paying taxes in the UK, and I believe your tax year is 6 April to 5 April, right? Why such an arbitrary date such as April 6? The reason has to do with New Year’s Day.
You may recall that up until 1752 the New Year was considered to begin on March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day). In Great Britain on March 25 the account books for the previous year were closed and new ones begun. Now, Easter is considered to be the first Sunday following the full moon which falls on or after the spring equinox. However, it was becoming apparent by the 16th century that the calendar used throughout Europe had a major problem. It had last been revised under Julius Caesar, and the clever thing about the Julian calendar was that it accommodated the fact that the solar year was not exactly 365 days long, but more like 365¼ days long. It did this by including a leap year day, February 29, every four years. Unfortunately, the Julian calendar was not clever enough.
The solar year it turns out, is actually 365.2425 days long, and over decades and centuries that 0.0075 day started to add up. By 1582 the astronomical vernal equinox was coming ten days before the supposed one, and Easter was being celebrated too late. Pope Gregory instituted the Gregorian calendar that year, requiring Catholic Europe to go directly from Thursday, 4 October 1582 to Friday, 15 October 1582, and with the rule that years divisible by 100 but not by 400 would not be leap years. Thus, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 1600 and 2000 were (you remember, right?); this makes up for the annual extra minutes that over four centuries amounts to a day. A final change was that the New Year would be observed on January 1, which was the old Roman custom that was grounded in it being the day when the consuls of the republic took their offices.
Of course, as this came from Rome, the Gregorian calendar was seen as a Popish plot by Protestants and an arrogant move by the Eastern Orthodox churches. Thus, the Russian Empire stayed on the Julian calendar up until the Soviets took over – and that is why a revolution that took place in November 1917 is remembers as the October Revolution – the Julian calendar was by then thirteen days behind. Greece as a nation did not move to the Gregorian calendar until 1922.
Meanwhile, Great Britain and Ireland observed the Julian calendar, but as its empire grew and tolerance for other Christian denominations developed, it was decided to fall in line in 1752. By then the calendar was eleven days behind, so Wednesday, 2 September 1752, was followed by Thursday, 14 September 1752. Accountants, in their typical conservative fashion, simply adjusted their fiscal year from beginning on March 25, Old Style, to what that now was in the New Style, April 5. Further, there were enough of them who knew that under the Julian calendar there would have been a February 29, 1800, although there was not under the Gregorian calendar; they just adjusted their books to start the fiscal year on April 6. This was not done for 1900, and April 6 it remains.
Julian, not Gregorian
For the most part, Eastern Orthodox Christians now use the Gregorian calendar for fixed feast days such as Christmas, Epiphany, the Annunciation on March 25 and the feast of Mary’s “Falling Asleep” on August 15. However, some groups in Orthodoxy are opposed to the “new” calendar, feeling that only an ecumenical council could require them to adopt it. Thus, if you were to go to Mount Athos in northern Greece the monasteries there are all on the Julian calendar, thirteen days behind us. Likewise, the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine observe the Julian Calendar for these fixed festivals, so what we in Canada call “Ukrainian Christmas” fell on January 7 this year, and our New Year’s Day was only December 19, 2019.
As a compromise with the Old Calendarists most Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter. Because full moons (even notional ones) will occur on different dates after the spring equinox, sometimes the Orthodox Easter will share the same day as Western Gregorian Easter, as it did in 2017 and will again in 2025. Most years it comes later. In 2020 our Easter is on April 12, and Orthodox Easter is a week later, on April 19. In 2021 our Easter is on April 4, whereas the Orthodox will have it on May 2 – four weeks later!
Closing the Books
Arguably this is all arbitrary. However, there is something powerful about the change of a year, as many of us who remember December 31, 1999 might attest. It does suggest closing one set of books and opening another, and that can be true of us spiritually just as it can be fiscally. My hope and prayer for 2020, as we move into our vision and a mission plan for our congregation here at St Thomas’s, is that God will bless us, and we will see that in God in Christ we are each being made anew. Happy New Year!