Which day is Christmas Day?

Jill Wilson

Twenty-fifth of December, of course; but is it really the day we now call 25th or the day we would have called 25th by last year’s calendar?

Arguments like this abounded 260 years ago this year, for in September 1752 England had adopted the Gregorian calendar.  In Campden it seems that some very strong opinions were held, especially by a schoolmaster, John Freeman.

Julian versus Gregorian Calendar

The Julian calendar established by Julius Caesar initially worked better than the previous one, but century by century had got more and more out of step with the true astronomical dates of the longest and shortest days and the equinoxes.  By 1582 it was 10 days out and an astronomer advised Pope Gregory XIII how to put matters right.  Many countries cut the 10 days out of the calendar the next year, jumping from 4th October straight to 15th.

However that was the period of the Reformation and of religious conflict, so England, in common with other newly Protestant countries, retained the old system.  By 1752 the complications of having two different calendars in Europe can be imagined; by now they were 11 days apart and several Protestant states had already switched.  For ordinary people in this country the difficulties of dates of fairs and rents due on quarter days getting further away from their original location in the agricultural year was proving a problem, so Britain’s calendar changed by dropping 11 days; 2nd September 1752 was followed by 14th.  From that year too the New Year now began officially on 1st January instead of 25th March, but many people had been using both versions for some time (the tax-year didn’t change in real terms – that’s why today it starts on 6th April).

The Christian Year

Everyone was used to the date of Easter changing so few argued over that, but the Julian Calendar had been in use in Christ’s day.  The equivalent day under the new calendar would be 6th January.  Many people were so certain of this, that they celebrated on that day.

A compromise

In Campden there seems to have been much discussion. John Freeman was strongly in favour of retaining Old Christmas Day.  Perhaps it was the vicar, William Weston, who worked out a compromise.  Certainly John Freeman seems to have accepted it, though whether willingly or unwillingly is not known.  In his will, however, in amongst several charitable bequests he left half a guinea (10s 6d) a year for the vicar or his curate to give a special sermon on 6th January.  So it was possible to celebrate Christmas Day on 25th December on either the new calendar or on the old calendar (or both) according to your beliefs and inclinations.

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