Why some celebrate Christmas in January

Ruth Griffiths

On this day in 1701, Frisia and Groningen (two areas of what is now the Netherlands) began to use the Gregorian calendar, breaking tradition from the Julian calendar that had been in use for nearly seven centuries. Because the Gregorian calendar is the world standard today, you probably only know about the Julian calendar because some cultures celebrate the birth of Jesus according to the old calendar which put Christmas on Jan. 7 this year. Locally we call it “Ukrainian Christmas”. Ironically, this year many people in war-torn Ukraine celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 of the Gregorian calendar so as to distinguish themselves from Russians who celebrate Christmas in January.
Most countries (except Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal and Saudi Arabia) use the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Because the year is approximately 365 ¼ days, this revised calendar allowed for the an extra day every fourth year which we now know as Leap Day (Feb. 29). This new calendar began the year on Jan. 1 rather than in March.

The early Roman calendar (based on a Greek lunar calendar) had 10 months with 30 or 31 days in each month: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December. The spring equinox (March 21) fell in the first month. The calendar year lasted for 304 days so there was a long stretch of winter days between the end of December and the beginning of the following March that were not assigned to any month.
The Roman calendar didn’t number the days of the month sequentially. Instead, dates were counted back from the kalendes, the nones, the ides of the month. From this system one could reckon the holy days, the feast days, the market days and, most importantly, when the rent was due.
But you can’t go all winter without paying the rent, so around 713 BC the king, Numa Pompilius, inserted January and February between December and March.
In 45 BC, Julius Caesar further modified the length of the months giving us the Julian calendar still in use today with sequentially numbered days in 12 months.
Although most of Europe had already switched to the Gregorian calendar, it was not until 1752 that
Britain and its colonies finally adopted the new calendar and switched the start of the new year from March to Jan. 1. By that time the difference between the two calendars was 11 days. To solve the problem, in that year the Brits passed an act that Sept. 2 was followed by Sept.14 (for that year only).
There was rioting in the streets with shouts of “give us back our 11 days.” Some country folk continued to celebrate Christmas in January according to the old calendar.
So why did I start this column talking about two obscure regions of the Netherlands 400 years ago? It’s because I sometimes can’t think up a topic for this column, so I search through lists of important dates in history until I find one that occurred on the date my column will appear and give you my musings about that event. Most often I learn something in the process. Several people have said they enjoy my explorations of these little known facts. I guess curiosity is contagious.