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Article Published March 17, 1999

By: Xenia Stanford Biography & Archived Articles


Like Julius Caesar had many centuries earlier, Pope Gregory XIII decided that the calendar needed correcting since the year once again was out of alignment with the "heavens". Again, as had Caesar, the Pope summoned the best minds of the day to Rome to begin the reform of the calendar.

His most significant change was "the ten days lost forever". Although the consensus of the Pope's esteemed group was that the Julian calendar was out according to the solar year by only 11 minutes and 14 seconds per year, by 1582 this was deemed to be ten days too many. Thus when October 5, 1582 dawned in Rome, it became October 15th. This "stolen" time was so upsetting to many people that riots broke out. Holy days, birthdays and other anniversaries were now officially reset to ten days later, e.g. the Pope's birthday now fell on January 11, not the 1st.

However, this was confusing to people who were afraid the saints might be upset at the change in the date number. Many still observed their birthdays or other festivities on the number of the day it had always been, even though this was now ten days earlier according to the "stars" than it was on the new calendar.

The loss of ten days was as or more confusing than Julius Caesar's "Year of Last (or Most) Confusion" even though the Julian calendar changed by months rather than days. The reason was that most European countries at this time were recording vital statistics and important civil events as well as assessing interest and taxes by exact date.

Today we are also more affected by the loss of the ten days than by the change in the Julian era since more dated records from Gregorian times exist and we are more likely to have traced our ancestors back to this time than to 45 BC. However, we have an advantage over the citizens of 1582. A number of web sites can now be consulted to translate the Julian date into Gregorian and vice versa. (One of these sites is mentioned at the end of this column and others will be mentioned in Part III.)

However, the Gregorian calendar had a less far-reaching immediate impact than did the Julian. Unlike in Caesar's time, Pope Gregory's Rome was no longer the governing head of state for lands once covered by the Holy Roman Empire. This meant the Gregorian calendar was not accepted as quickly over as wide an area as was Caesar's. Instead of being less confusing, however, this can cause more concern to us today since many countries continued to use the Julian calendar while others converted to the Gregorian. Unless we know what date the official records were in the time period and country we are examining, the conversion program may produce more errors than accuracy in determining the dates of events in the lives of our ancestors.

Rome was still the seat and the Pope the head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church so most Catholic countries accepted the Gregorian calendar by 1584. France, for example, officially changed on December 9, 1582 (Julian time) by pronouncing the following day December 20, 1582 (Gregorian time). Thus at the founding of New France in the early 1600s, the Gregorian calendar was in effect. However, on the same continent, the British colonies in America were still observing the Julian Calendar.

At the conquest of New France on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, Britain had only recently adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Although it was two centuries after Catholic countries had accepted the Papal changes, England was the first of the Protestant countries to accept the Gregorian Calendar. In 1751 Britain decreed that she and her colonies would eliminate September 3-13 of the following year to align with the new dates. Also in 1751 the British Parliament passed an Act changing New Year's Day back to January 1 starting with the year 1752.

Although they had begun changing in 1700 to the new calendar, Germany, the other major European Protestant country, did not complete the move to the Gregorian Calendar until 1775. Non-Christian countries that have changed to the Gregorian Calendar, even though they observed their own calendars before, have only begun to do so in the past two centuries. For example, Japan accepted the Gregorian Calendar in 1873 and China only in 1949. However, China with its acceptance of the western calendar, still maintains a unique beginning of the year rather than January 1st.

Of course some countries or religions have not accepted the Gregorian Calendar to this day. Although Russia officially adopted it at the start of its revolution in 1917 and maintained it during the USSR regime, those who follow the Eastern Orthodox Church continued to reject the change. Thus even today, Ukrainians, who are of the Eastern Orthodox faith, follow the Julian calendar though Christmas Day for them is out by more than ten days. This is due to the belief that the estimation of the December 25 birth was wrong to begin with and should be January 7th.

Therefore, you can see that during the same year, the date of an ancestor born in one country may be under the Gregorian system and the date of an ancestor born in another country may fall under the Julian calendar. The date could appear to be the same but in fact could be ten days apart or could appear to be ten days apart but in fact could be the same date. Confusing, isn't it?


With the change to the Gregorian Calendar, most countries, if they had been observing a different date in the intervening centuries, reverted to the Julian beginning of the year as January 1st.

Changing to January 1st as the first day of the year created the interesting custom of April Fool's Day. It has been variously supposed that the month name Aprilis came from the goddess Aphrodite, something to do with hogs or from a festival celebrating the coming of sunnier days.

I prefer to think the latter is more accurate since "apricus" means sunny in Latin and with the beginning of good weather, people (especially the French) started a tradition of paying formal visits to friends on April 1. However, when the calendar changed to January as the first month, for some reason, the formal visiting day became January 1 (in spite of the less pleasant weather).

Although the French switched their formal visits to the beginning of the new year, as did others when they adopted the Gregorian calendar reform, they still went visiting on April 1. However, these became mock visits to catch people who might have forgotten the formal visiting day had been changed. The French called this new tradition of irreverent visits of trickery and tomfoolery "Poisson d'avril" translated as "April Fish". April implies a "spring", "young" or "newly hatched" fish, thus one that is easily caught. The English speaking world adopted this tradition but changed Fish to Fool, hence April Fool's Day.


A differing year one was chosen by various calendars in the following eras. The original notation AD was used by the Emperor Diocletian who restarted year one in what is now considered 284 AD. The AD stood for "anno Diocletian" or the year of Diocletian. Dionysius, in the year now known as 531 AD, decided to recalculate starting with the year of Christ's birth and changed the AD to stand for "anno Domini" or "the year of our Lord". He estimated Christ's birth to be 531 years earlier and numbered that year as 1 AD. Since the concept of zero had not been invented yet, Dionysius did not have a year 0.

The years now known as BC or "before Christ" were not renumbered until 1627 when the French astronomer Denis Petau introduced them while teaching at Collège Clermont in Paris. He also started his count at 1. Therefore, the calendar changed from 1 BC to 1 AD without a zero year. Thus, according to our present system, the next millennium, i.e. the start of the next 1000 years, actually begins in 2001.


I wish to thank all the readers who have sent me email regarding recent columns. Most send kudos but occasionally I receive notes that keep me on my toes. These are also much appreciated as I am open to learning and do not wish to lead any researchers astray.

Thanks to one of my readers who drew my attention to an error in the previous issue. I referred to the Incarnation as the rising from the dead by Christ. Was I asleep or what? The rising of Christ is the Resurrection. The Incarnation is the assumption by Jesus Christ of the human body and condition. (This reference to "assumption" should not be confused with the Assumption, a church feast on August 15 celebrating the bodily ascent of the Virgin Mary into heaven.) The Incarnation announced to Mary by the angel is the feast of Annunciation. I had the name of the event correct but not the definition. I did pass my catechism but it was a long time ago. Still I should not have made such a faux pas and I apologise to my readers.


In these past two issues, in spite of the title, I have not explained what month is fructidor. This will be found in PART III, which will cover THE FRENCH REPUBLICAN CALENDAR with its unusual month names.

Also a bibliography including web sites for calculating dates according to various calendars will be given at the end of Part III.

More Quebec/French Research Resources

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Norway Bay United & Anglican Cemetery
(Pontiac County, Quebec)

The Merivale Cemeteries
(Protestant - Ottawa area)