April Folly – an historical digression on New Year’s Day

Today, the first of April is All Fools Day, a day dedicated to making people look foolish, but why? Why April 1st?

There is general confusion amongst antiquaries and folklorists about this, the older antiquaries would either try and find a classical source (with no success) or mutter darkly about Romish and Papist fallacies (as though the Roman catholic church was to be blamed for everything). However one suggestion was both interesting, and possibly even correct.

April 1st marks the end of the first week of the year, and possibly All Fools Day is a fun way of finishing the New Year’s holiday!

April fool 1825

This is not so strange as it seems as once, two hundred and fifty years ago and more, the New Year in England began on March 25th, even today this can cause problems, recently two groups arranged events to commemorate the death of Sir Isaac Newton a year apart as one took the date on his tomb March 20th 1726, whilst the other used his death date converted to modern terminology March 31st 1727.

Whilst England was a single country there was no problem, then it was joined to Scotland, and after the union of the parliaments in 1707 there was real trouble as Scotland was following the more widespread date for New Year, January 1st. This was got round by a compromise, the two years were given separated by a diagonal stroke, they could look like a fraction.

Memorial from Broadwindsor church (Dorset) showing a divided date

New year’s day’s celebration continued on March 25th in England, the Aurelian Society, the world’s first entomological society came to an abrupt end when, in 1748, a New Year’s Eve party got out of hand and the Swan tavern, where they met, burnt down with the loss of the societies books, collections and nearly its members.

But Britain was not just out of step with much of Europe on its years, the very calendars didn’t align as Britain was still using the Julian calendar, which by now was eleven days adrift from the, more widely used, Gregorian calendar. Unfortunately, when the Gregorian calendar had been invented in 1582, and enthusiastically promoted by Pope Gregory after whom it was named, Britain was staunchly protestant and wanted nothing to do with this papist innovation.

Finally, in 1752, Britain accepted the Gregorian calendar, by omitting all dates between the 2nd and 14th of September. The act to change the calendars was an incredibly complex one taking into account such things as, what happened if a debt became due on one of the missing days. How did you calculate rents when payable by the quarter (three months) and so on, it also changed the start of the new year to 1st January.

However one organisation decided that to change would be too much trouble, and so ignored it. That organisation was the Treasury. They just carried on as normal, using the old start to the new year, they had to alter the date as eleven days had disappeared, so they now use 6th April as the start of their new year, the Financial Year as we call it.

So in my discursive way I have moved from All Fools Day to the Treasury, perhaps not such a big leap.


1 Comment

Filed under Georgian

One response to “April Folly – an historical digression on New Year’s Day

  1. Amazing. What a huge problem it must have been at the time. It would cause havoc today!


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