Take the next week and a half off

William Hogarth painting (c. 1755) which is the main source for Today is… well, arguably it’s October 4th. But if you ask Pope Gregory’s opponents it’s more like September 21. Which doesn’t mean your bills aren’t due.

The reason Gregory XIII was messing with the calendar is not the alarming grandiosity of modern tyrants who rename cities, mountains and then months or days as they go progressively more insane. It’s that the old Julian calendar had the length of the day slightly off and as the centuries flicked by it got worse and worse. So Gregory brought in that business of skipping Feb. 29 in years ending 00 unless they are divisible by 400.

Don’t worry. It only means 2100 isn’t a leap year and if you’re around to care then you’re doing pretty well even if you forget. This year was; 2020 will be; 2024 will be; 2400 will be. Relax. But by 1582 the accumulated difference was putting various festivals including Easter some distance from where they belonged relative to the earth going around the sun exactly once which many people persist in believing is intimately related with the length of a year, so the Pope got some guys with sharp quills to figure out how long the year was, what to do about it and how to reset the calendar so it was right and would stay right.

Naturally there was a hoo hah. It’s a rule of public policy that no matter how sensible something is, it will bring out at least some of the outraged reactions a really stupid or nasty idea produces. It’s one reason it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in political debates and yes, it was happening even before the Internet worked its transformative magic on so many of us, sending us to dwell in the slime beneath crumbling bridges. But I digress.

The point is, I’ve always cherished the riots that ensued in England when, belatedly, the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752 by which point the gap had grown to 11 days. Supposedly people erupted that the government was shortening their life, it was a Popish plot and who knows what all. The only reason there weren’t Hitler comparisons was he didn’t exist yet and neither did the Internet.

No, wait. Another reason is the riots never happened. It turns out they were just an urban legend. Dang. But that’s what happens when you research things (including, since I’ve been dumping on the Internet, the awkward fact that I disposed of a belief I’d been savouring for four decades by Googling). Apparently it was all a misunderstanding of a painting by William Hogarth or some such.

Now if you’re wondering why the British took so long to do something so obvious, it’s something to do with people’s uneasy feeling that it was a Popish plot. Of what sort I don’t know; see “hoo hah” above. But eventually they did it and so did most other people, generally sooner in Catholic than Protestant countries though even there the government had to act with its usual intelligent dispatch, though some churches held out on the grounds that no sane person would let the Pope tell them how long the year was or when the spring solstice was even if he was, you know, totally right.

So anyway, that’s why 2000 was a leap year but 1900 wasn’t. And why those riots that didn’t happen were totally silly. And yes, you still have to pay your bills. Indeed in Britain tax day is April 6 because it used to be “Lady Day,” March 25, a.k.a. the Feast of the Annunciation which also used to be the start of the new year (how convenient would that be, that it wasn’t even the first of a month?). And just because the government finally rearranged the calendar for everybody else, not only moving to the Gregorian system but also making Jan. 1 the first day of the year as of the start of 1752, it didn’t mean the tax people were about to adjust, let alone somehow get by with just 282 days of taxes in a year, 1751, that was… 282 days long, or 355 days of taxes in a year, 1752, that was… well, you get the idea. But that’s bureaucracy for you.