January 01, 2008

From Julian to Gregory

The first time Russia changed its calendar was under Peter the Great, who in 1700 ordered that the New Year be celebrated January 1, and not on the first of September or March, as it had been in the past. It was also under Peter that the custom of decorating Christmas trees was adopted from Lutheran countries. Why did it not occur to Peter, who was unabashed in his rejection of old customs and traditions, to replace the Julian calendar with the Gregorian one?

When Peter made his “Grand Embassy” through Western Europe in 1697, most of the continent had already accepted the Gregorian reform. True, it was the Catholic countries that had taken the lead in this, with some Protestant countries dragging their feet until the end of the 17th century, feeling that it was better to part ways with the sun than to agree with the Pope on anything. But in 1700 the Protestant portion of the Netherlands and the German Lutheran principalities agreed to make the switch. The theory that Peter did not want to follow suit for fear of insulting the Orthodox Church cannot be taken seriously, given other actions by the sovereign, including his creation of the Most Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters, a parody of the church, and his abolition of the Patriarchate.

Perhaps he just did not attribute particular significance to the differences between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars. Given the speed of travel in those days, Russia and Western Europe could use different calendars without causing particular problems. It would be one thing to board a plane and in a few hours find yourself in a country using a different system, but it is another matter when you traveled by carriage across a vast number of European countries, some of which were living by the Julian calendar, while others had already adopted the Gregorian. It would be easy to get confused in such a kaleidoscope, so it was probably simplest of all just to ignore the difference. If a traveler sent a letter from Europe dated in accordance with the local calendar, by the time it reached Russia, its recipient had probably already lived to the date of the correspondence, or perhaps even beyond it, so the problem was barely noticed.

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