IT is difficult for most of us to realise that March used to be first month of the year. It was named after Mars, the god of war, and in Anglo-Saxon times became known in this country as Hreth-monath or Hyldmonath because it was considered a rough month due to the powerful winds that raged.

In later times it became known as Lenctenmonath, the month of lengthening days.

It was Julius Caesar who introduced his version of the 12-month calendar around 45BC and this remained in use throughout the world until Pope Gregory the Great introduced his corrections in 1582. Gregory’s changes were necessary because Caesar’s Julian calendar was inaccurate.

The clues came from the date of the spring equinox which in turn is governed by the sun’s movements. When the Julian calendar began, the spring equinox occurred on March 25. But by the time of Pope Gregory (1502-1585), the equinox had slipped to March 11. Gregory decided to do something about it, and, with his team of experts, decided that 10 days must be removed from the calendar – and so, in the year of his changes, October 5 became October 15.

But further small adjustments were required. To ensure the calendar was absolutely correct, it was necessary to add one more day every fourth year — that day was February 29 and those years became known as leap years.

Inevitably, there was a lot of misunderstanding about the changes. Some people thought their life had been shortened by 10 days, others thought they were being robbed of 10 days’ pay. And the kingdom of England, being newly Protestant, suspected some kind of Catholic plot and refused to adopt the new calendar.

European countries readily adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582 but it took nearly two centuries for England to accept it. That happened in 1752 — by which time England had to remove 11 days from its calendar, with September 3 becoming September 13. The worries caused by Julius Caesar’s changes now repeated themselves in England with some sturdy English folk ignoring the changes.

They steadfastly refused to accept the changes and continued to celebrate their special occasions by the old calendar. I knew a farmer on the moors who refused to accept the new date for Michaelmas Day. He had always harvested his wheat on Michaelmas Day but he continued to do so on what became known as Old Michaelmas Day. Echoes of that period remain, as people refer to Old Christmas Day, Old Midsummer Day, Old Michaelmas Day and Old Twelfth Day.

There is also the rather curiously named Old Lady Day, sometimes known as St Mary’s Day in Lent. Lady Day falls on March 25 which was formerly a significant day for those who rented farms or houses. Rents were due on Lady Day and new tenancies were also arranged to begin on that date. The formal name for Lady Day is The Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day Mary was made aware that she was to become the Mother of Christ.

In looking at some of the named days in March, this region is well represented by saints’ days. March 2 is the feast day of St Chad, an abbot of the monastery at Lastingham deep in the North York Moors. With his brother Cedd he founded the monastery. Cedd died after attending the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 and Chad went on to become the Bishop of Lichfield and patron of many churches in the Midlands. Yorkshire farmers believed their geese began to lay eggs on the feast of St Chad.

The ancient crypt beneath St Mary’s Church in Lastingham has a chancel, nave and two aisles, the only surviving Norman crypt with these features. St Cedd’s grave is said to be beneath the crypt, and the Catholic cathedral in Birmingham contains relics of St Chad.

March 3 is the feast day of another famous local saint — St Aelred, the former Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey. Those ruins are among the most visited of any in the country and it was Aelred who said that Rievaulx provided a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.

Another local saint is St Cuthbert who celebrates his feast day on March 20. The village of Crayke will forever be associated with Cuthbert whose remains rested here for four months to avoid destruction by the Danes. Everywhere that his bones rested became part of County Durham and this continued until 1844 when an Act of Parliament restored Crayke to the North Riding of Yorkshire. The old monastery at Crayke became St Cuthbert’s Church, thus Crayke parish church is dedicated to its founder, not its patron.

Feasting on fiction

ANOTHER Yorkshire saint with a feast day in March is St Alkelda. Churches at both Middleham and Giggleswick are named in her honour but she appears to have been more of a fictitious creation than a real person.

Keld is an old name for a spring or well, while a holy well was a haligkeld or hallikeld. St Alkelda’s Ebbing and Flowing Well is near Giggleswick.

To help people remember the various days in the run-up to Easter, the Sundays in Lent have given rise to this well-known saying that places the Sundays in sequence: “Tid, Mid, Miserae, Carlin, Palm and Pace Egg Day.”

The first three are from the Latin Mass and based on Te Deum, Mi Deus and Miserere Mei.

Carlin Sunday (when carlin peas were eaten) follows with Palm Sunday after it, and Pace Egg Day is an old name for Easter Sunday. Pace Eggs (paste eggs, hard-boiled) were rolled down a hillside on Easter Sunday. This sequence does not allow a fifth Sunday between Carlin Sunday and Easter Sunday.

In bygone times, the fifth Sunday in Lent was known as Care Sunday, sometimes known as Mothering Sunday when children returned to their childhood homes with gifts for their mum. On occasions this occurred on Carlin Sunday, with the following Passion Sunday being when children returned home. In other words, the sequence of tid, mid, miserae, etc is not hewn in stone. There can be variations.

Palm Sunday is the last Sunday before Easter when palm leaves are carried but it is sometimes known as Fig Sunday because figs were eaten in some parts of Yorkshire and gardeners planted flower seeds.

And as most of us know, March 1 is Whuppity Scoorie Day when peas and beans are planted, and winter is chased away with an ancient ceremony in Scotland.