In British and Irish tradition, the quarter days were the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due. They fell on four religious festivals roughly three months apart and close to the two solstices and two equinoxes.
The significance of quarter days is now limited, although leasehold payments and rents for land and premises in England are often still due on the old English quarter days.
The quarter days have been observed at least since the Middle Ages, and they ensured that debts and unresolved lawsuits were not allowed to linger on. Accounts had to be settled, a reckoning had to be made and publicly recorded on the quarter days.
Lady Day was also the first day of the year in British dominions (excluding Scotland) until 1752 (when it was harmonised with the Scottish practice of 1 January being New Year's Day). The British tax year still starts on "Old" Lady Day (6 April under the Gregorian calendar corresponded to 25 March under the Julian calendar: the eleven days the new-style calendar advanced in 18th century plus one day due to the twelfth skipped Julian leap day in 1800; however it was not changed to 7 April when a thirteenth Julian leap day was skipped in 1900). The dates of the quarter days observed in northern England until the 18th century were the same as those in Scotland.
The cross-quarter days are four holidays falling in between the quarter days: Candlemas (2 February), May Day (1 May), Lammas (1 August), and All Hallows (1 November). The Scottish term days, which fulfil a similar role as days on which rents are paid, correspond more closely to the cross-quarter days than to the English quarter days.
There is a mnemonic for remembering on which day of the month the first three quarter-days fall (Christmas being easy to recall): Every quarter day is twenty-something, and the second digit of the day of the month is the number of letters in the month's name. So March has five letters and Lady Day is 25 March; similarly June has four letters and September nine, with Midsummer Day and Michaelmas falling on the 24th and 29th respectively.
At many schools, class terms would begin on the quarter days; for example, the autumn term would start on 29 September, and thus continues to be called the Michaelmas term, especially at more traditional universities.
These are now called cross-quarter days since they fall about halfway into each of the English quarters.
The "Old Scottish term days" corresponded approximately to the old Celtic quarter days:
- Candlemas (2 February)
- Whitsunday (legislatively fixed for this purpose on 15 May)
- Lammas (1 August)
- Martinmas (11 November).
These were also the dates of the Quarter Days observed in northern England until the 18th century.
The dates for removals and for the employment of servants of Whitsunday and Martinmas were changed in 1886 to 28 May and 28 November respectively. The Term and Quarter Days (Scotland) Act 1990 redefined the "Scottish term days", in official use, as the 28th of February, May, August and November respectively. The Act specifies that the new dates take effect on 13 June 1991 (12 months from the date it was passed).
Notes and references
- Clines, David J. A. (1998). On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967-1998 (Continuum International Publishing), p. 801.
- Fitton, Mike (1994), Quarter Days and Courts, archived from the original on 11 February 2012
- Staff (9 October 2013). "Lectures and Seminars, Michaelmas term 2013" (PDF). Gazette Supplement. Oxford University. p. 1. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
- Mairi Robinson (chief ed.): The Concise Scots Dictionary, Aberdeen University Press, 1985