In the Western liturgical year, Lady Day is the traditional name in some English-speaking countries of the Feast of the Annunciation, which is celebrated on 25 March, and commemorates the visit of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, during which he informed her that she would be the mother of Jesus. In both the 1549 Prayer Book of Edward VI and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, this event is known as “The Annunciation of the (Blessed) Virgin Mary.” It is the first of the four traditional English quarter days.
In England there is a long tradition that a standard commercial lease has rents paid quarterly in advance. The practice stems, like much property law, from medieval times. The Kings in those days would have their tax collectors tour around the country collecting taxes on the Christian holy days, so commercial rents took on the same tradition.
From 1155 to 1752, Lady Day was New Year’s Day, meaning the beginning of the new year. The change to 1 January only occurred with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Great Britain.
This should be distinguished from the liturgical and historical year, which is still 1 January.
Lady Day was traditionally the day upon which people executed year-long contracts, generally, between landowners and tenant farmers. Farmers’ time of “entry” into new farms and onto new fields often occurred on Lady 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 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 in the Old Style calendar became 5 April (“Old Lady Day”), which assumed the role of contractual year-beginning.” (Lady Day)
The Biblical story of the Annunciation is found in Gospel of Luke 1: 26-38:
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
The quarter days are the four days marking the beginning of each quarter of the year. They are traditionally regarded as the days for settling certain debts, such as rent. Since the Middle Ages, these days marked the four parts of the year. “Note that the days are different for England and Scotland. Both mark the start of the seasons, but according to different calendars. The English Quarter Days roughly align with the astronomical seasons, while the Scottish Quarter Days mark (more or less) the start of the seasons according to the Celtic calendar. These Scottish days correspond more closely, but not exactly, to the cross-quarter days, or mid-season days, of the English calendar.” (Quarter Days)
In southern England, Wales and Ireland are what we, generally read in Regency romances. They are
Lady Day – March 25, Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the traditional day for hiring farm workers for the coming year
Midsummer – June 24, Feast of St John the Baptist, the midpoint of the growing season
Michaelmas – September 29, Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, start of the harvest
Christmas – December 25, Feast of the Birth of Jesus, high point of the year, when farm workers were paid for the year’s labor
Meanwhile, in the northern part of England and in Scotland, the four Quarter Days (also called Old Scottish Term Days in Scotland) are
Candlemas – February 2, Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary
Whitsunday – May 15, Feast of the Holy Spirit
Lammas – August 1, Feast of St Peter’s Deliverance from Prison
Martinmas – November 11, Feast of St Martin the Bishop
In Chapter One of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet tells her husband something of Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield Park. The speech tells us Bingley will take possession at Michaelmas, 29 September, when contracts were customarily signed for such adventures.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
Quarter days were also the days that servants were hired or were paid. Cottagers on large estates paid their rents on these days, and I assume, so did many living in the larger cities, such as London. I do know that leasehold payments and businesses paid rents on the Quarter Days. Other debts were also paid on these days, and legal matters were taken up. Money owed to the poor was delivered. Taxes were collected.
School terms often aligned with the Quarter Days. For example, Michaelmas term at Cambridge runs from October through December, the Lent term from January to March, and the Easter term from April to June.