If you’re new to Scandinavian and Germanic family history research, you might be puzzled by the dates used for christenings, confirmations, marriages, and burials in your ancestors’ lives. The challenge isn’t only in reading those dates but also in interpreting them correctly.
Besides deciding if dates are based on either the Julian or Gregorian calendar, you will also need to decipher dates based on the liturgical (church) calendar depending on how the parish records were kept. The ministers often recorded dates using the names of the Moveable or Immoveable Feast Days of the year.
Ruth Ellen Maness, an accredited genealogist who has spent 40 years in Scandinavian and Germanic genealogy research, says that dates based on Feast Days should be converted, and the researcher should have a basic understanding of the importance and the use of Feast Days in record-keeping. She presented a course on Feast Days recently at the Conference on Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University.
The lives of your German or Scandinavian ancestors were harsh, Maness explained. Sunday was the one day when they could take a partial rest from their labors and perhaps partake of meals that were more lavish than those served during the rest of the week. Therefore, every Sunday was considered a Feast Day.
“Much of the time the vital events of your ancestors’ lives which were required to be recorded in church book took place on Sundays,” she said.
In the records earlier than approximately 1812, the birth of a child might not be recorded — only the christening (infant baptism) date, which might be weeks or months after the birth. The christening would be on a Sunday, or Feast Day. This would be the only record of the birth. An exception to the Feast Day christening would be the case of an emergency christening at home. Maness said this would occur during the week if a child was in danger of dying before the Feast Day. If the child survived after the emergency christening, the baby would still have to be presented at the church on a Feast Day.
There are two categories of Feast Days — Moveable and Immoveable. An Immoveable Feast Day is one in which the date is always the same, no matter what day of the week it falls on. Christmas and New Year’s Day are Immoveable Feast Days. Easter, on the other hand, depends on the March equinox and varies annually, so it falls on a different Sunday in March, April or May each year. It is a Moveable Feast Day. Sundays are also Moveable Feast Days. The first Sunday in February, for example, will be on a different date each year.
In the parish records, Maness reported, the information might be written in the native language or in Latin. Sunday is Dominica in Latin, or the Day of the Lord, and the Latin might be abbreviated as Dom, or just D. in the records.
The genealogist reported that there are 66 designated Feast Days in the calendar, and a Moveable Feast Day listed in a record could be based on its relation to an Immoveable Feast Day. For example, a date written as Dom 3 p. Epiphania would be the third Sunday after January 6 (Epiphany, the day considered holy because the Three Wise Men visited the Christ child). A date written as 5 p. Paaske would be 5 Sundays past Paaske (Easter).
Researchers should note that if the Sunday number is larger than 6, it will be in the run of Sundays between May and November, Maness said. Additionally, the 4 Sundays preceding Christmas are known as Advent, so the genealogist must be careful in deciding if the year information is the liturgical year starting with Advent Sunday or the chronological year starting Jan. 1.
Another potential pitfall in determining correct year information is the use of the Julian vs. Gregorian calendar, Maness noted. Because of the decree of Pope Gregory, Catholic Dioceses in Germany adopted the new Gregorian calendar in 1583, while Lutheran-Protestant parishes in Germany converted to the new calendar at different times during the next century with most converting by March 1, 1700. Denmark and Norway also converted their calendars by this date, but Sweden and Finland did not change to the Gregorian calendar until 1753.
Maness said the easiest way to determine the proper conversion is to go to the Research Wiki in Family Search where there are year conversion tables for the countries.
She suggested that the researcher type “Moveable Feast Day Calendar for _______” in the search box and tables from the years of the 1500s to the 1900s will appear.