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Bonjour! We wish you a Merry Dog Day and a Happy Grape Harvest 

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IF, LIKE many of us, you tend to get mixed up with dates and days over the Christmas period, spare a thought for the bemused French 230 years ago. At the end of 1793, they were trying to get their heads round a new republican calendar imposed by the revolutionary Jacobin government to replace the centuries-old Gregorian version. 

It abolished all the familiar names of the months – janvier, février, etc – and gave them a bewildering welter of new titles inspired by nature, such as Germinal (germination), Thermidor (summer heat), and Brumaire (winter mist). The aim was to purge the calendar of royalist or religious connotations following the executions of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette and the suppression of the Catholic Church. 

So December that year was renamed Nivose – meaning ‘snowy’ – and the 25th was entitled le jour du chien (‘day of the dog’). Even 1793 was consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, it was called Year II, because 1792 had been Year I, when France was declared a republic, ending the previous ‘vulgar’ era of ‘cruelty, lies, perfidy and slavery’. 

It meant that Christmas 1793 – sorry, Dog Day, Year II – was not much fun. Christian church services were banned, and even traditional Yuletide ‘three kings’ cakes were renamed ‘equality cakes’ by the revolutionary zealots. However, you were free to join in the official atheistic religion, the Cult of Reason, with ceremonies celebrating truth, liberty and philosophy. 

With many folk left désolé by the Christmas clampdown, could New Year celebrations brighten the winter gloom? Not really – because the year now started at the autumn equinox (usually September 22 or 23), taking citizens into the month of Vendémiaire, meaning ‘grape harvest’. 

Everyday life got even more complicated when the revolutionaries tweaked time itself. A year now consisted of 12 months, each of 30 days. Months were divided into three ten-day weeks. Each decimalised day was ten hours, each hour was 100 minutes, and each minute was 100 seconds. Thus a republican hour was the timespan formerly known as two hours, 24 minutes. The tenth day of each week – called ‘Decadi’ – was a day of rest, replacing Sunday. 

The calendar was produced by the Committee of Public Instruction, chaired by Jacobin politician Charles-Gilbert Romme, a mathematician. Its members included the poet-actor Philippe-Francois-Nazaire D’Eglantine, who is credited with making up the new names of the months. The committee decreed that details of the calendar be distributed throughout France, including to ‘professors, teachers, mothers and fathers of families, and all those who direct the education of children’.  

But many peasants and farmers clung to the old liturgical rhythm of the Gregorian calendar, where each day of the year was dedicated to a saint. So D’Eglantine instead named each of the 360 days after ‘objects that make up the true riches of the nation’. Thus, rather than commemorate martyrs and holy men, days were dedicated to a cornucopia of agricultural produce, including parsnips, manure, raisins, weeds, lettuce, mint, tobacco and rhubarb, as well as animals – with the dog allocated the old Christmas Day. 

France stuck with the republican calendar for 13 years until Napoleon abolished it in September 1805 and the Gregorian calendar was reinstated on January 1, 1806. Neither of the two main creators of the republican calendar were around to see the demise of their brainchild. Caught in the maelstrom of revolutionary politics, D’Eglantine was guillotined on April 5, 1794 (16 Germinal, Year II – Day of the Lettuce) and Romme committed suicide on June 17, 1795 (29 Prairial, Year III – Day of the Peony) after being sentenced to death. 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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