A Year and a Day

Welsh literature is full of very casually used examples of time keeping termed ‘a year and a day’. As in a curse that must be borne for a year and a day after which it expires or is lifted. Or a goddess figure who rides for a year and a day or a warrior who is called to battle a year and a day from some earlier dispute. But where does the phrase come from?

Haitian voodoo tradition has the souls of the recently departed slip into rivers and streams and stay there for a year and a day before being reborn as the spirits of trees, mountains or caves.

New initiates into the Wiccan faith (and, reputedly, into Druidism long before it) had to study for a year and a day before being accepted as a neophyte to study further.

Some feudal societies stet a year and a day as the period after which an indentured servant (serf) could be freed if he remained away from his bonded lands for that long.

It appears that Celtic betrothals were also conducted for a year and a day. Most would be negotiated at Lugnasadh, the couple would be officially betrothed until the following Lugnasadh and the day later they would be deemed married (or the betrothal cancelled if it wasn’t going well).

It is only comparatively recently that Britain lifted the requirement for a death to happen within a year and a day of a murder attempt for it to actually be called murder. In New Zealand, that is still technically the law. If someone dies as a result of a murderous act but it takes them more than a year to do it, the person cannot be charged with the murder. Poisoners take note.

A year and a day is also the minimum incarceration period in some countries to distinguish a misdemeanour from a felony. And, in the US, intents to sue need to be lodged within a year and a day of the inciting incident.

But what is this year and a day? How has it arisen?

Some scholars observe that pre-Christian Celts may have had thirteen months in a year (each named for trees) of 28 days each. 28 x 13 is 364 and, thus, a leap day needed to be added at the end (or start) of every year to keep the solar calendar aligned. The Celtic year ran from the New Year (Dec 24) until the following Dec 22 (winter solstice). December 23rd was not technically part of the year and was reputedly a day of special magic. And so when the people of that time were timekeeping across years, some say they would refer to ‘a year and a day’ to mean what we would consider now a year (365 days) or a base annual unit.