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In the western liturgical year, Lady Day is the traditional name in some English speaking countries of the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), known in the 1549 Prayer Book of Edward VI and the 1667 Book of Common Prayer as "The Annunciation of the (Blessed) Virgin Mary" but more accurately (as currently in the 1997 Calendar of the Church of England) termed "The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary". It is the first of the four traditional English quarter days. The "(Our) Lady" is the Virgin Mary. The term derives from Middle English, when some nouns lost their genitive inflections. "Lady" would later gain an -s genitive ending, and therefore the name means "(Our) Lady's day". The day commemorates the tradition of archangel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the Christ.
In England, Lady Day was New Year's Day from 1155 till 1752, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted and with it the first of January as the official start of the year. A vestige of this remains in the United Kingdom's tax year, which starts on 6 April, or "New Lady Day", i.e., Lady Day adjusted for the 11 lost days of the calendar change. Until this change Lady Day had been used as the start of the legal year. This should be distinguished from the liturgical and historical year. It appears that in England and Wales, from at least the late 14th century, New Year's Day was celebrated on 1 January as part of Yule.
As a year-end and quarter day that conveniently did not fall within or between the seasons for ploughing and harvesting, Lady Day was a traditional day on which year-long contracts between landowners and tenant farmers would begin and end in England and nearby lands (although there were regional variations). Farmers' time of "entry" into new farms and onto new fields was often this day. As a result, farming families who were changing farms would travel from the old farm to the new one on Lady Day. In 1752 England finally followed western Europe in switching to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar. The Julian lagged 11 days behind the Gregorian, and hence 25 March ("Old Lady Day") became 6 April ("New Lady Day"), which assumed the role of fiscal and contractual year-beginning. (The date is significant in some of the works of Thomas Hardy, such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, and is discussed in his 1884 essay The Dorset Farm Labourer).
The logic of using Lady Day as the start of the year is that it roughly coincides with Equinox (when the length of day and night is equal); many ancient cultures still use this time as the start of the new year, for example, the Iranian new year and the original Hebrew new year. In some traditions it also reckons years AD from the moment of the Annunciation, which is considered to take place at the moment of the conception of Jesus at the Annunciation rather than at the moment of his birth at Christmas.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, General Chronology (Beginning of the Year).
- See Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fytte Three
- Adams, Leonard P. "Agricultural Depression and Farm Relief in England, 1813–1852" Reviewed in Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 95(4):735–737 (1932)
- "The Tenant League v. Common Sense" Irish Quarterly Review 1(1):25–45 (March, 1851)