irrelevant space

Created 10 Jan 2024
Last updated 10 Jan 2024

Adding "Created At" and "Last Updated" Dates to Jekyll

In making the Jekyll theme I am using here, I wanted each note to show a Created At and a Last Updated date. Jekyll by default supports dates for post types. The date would be specified in the title of the post, e.g. The date is then parsed by Jekyll and is available in Since I’m using collections instead of posts, and mainly using Obsidian to create and edit my files, my markdown files as they are being generated at the moment don’t have a date in the title. I was already writing a set of plugins to add Obsidian support to Jekyll, so I thought I’d write a plugin that tells Jekyll to use the file’s creation date as the post date unless it is specified in the frontmatter.

The First (Failed) Attempt

This was simple enough. All I had to do was to add a :documents :post_init hook1 to set the created_at and last_updated_at variables to File.ctime(doc.path)2 and File.mtime(doc.path)3 respectively if they are not already set in the frontmatter. The resulting code looks something like this:

Jekyll::Hooks.register :documents, :post_init do |doc|
  # set created at date to file creation date if not already set["created_at"] ||= File.ctime(doc.path)

  # set last updated date to file modification date if not already set["last_updated_at"] ||= File.mtime(doc.path)

This worked perfectly when I was testing it locally. But once pushed to GitHub, all the notes showed the same date, the date of when they were pushed to GitHub. What was going on?

Source: It works on my machine

What was going on?

To understand the issue, it is important to understand the deployment setup. When a new commit gets pushed to GitHub, a GitHub action is triggered which uses actions/checkout@v4 to checkout the repo, then uses a custom action that is not relevant to this post to build the site and deploy it to GitHub Pages. When actions/checkout@v4 checks out the repo, all the files were being created at the same time, which is the time of the checkout. This is why File.ctime and File.mtime are unsuitable for this case. What we need instead is a way to get the creation date of the file in the repo, not the creation date of the file in the local machine.

The Second (Working) Attempt

My next plan was to use git history to set created_at to the file’s first commit date, and the last_updated_at to the file’s last commit date. By default, actions/checkout@v4 checks out the repo with the fetch-depth option set to 1, so only the latest commit is fetched. Since I need the full git history to get the first commit date as well as the last, the GitHub actions workflow needed a small tweak:

 - name: Checkout
   uses: actions/checkout@v4
+  with:
+    fetch-depth: 0 # fetch all history for all tags and branches

Now that we have the full git history, we can use git log 4 to get the first and last commit dates. Using git log --follow --format=%ad --date=iso-strict -- "#{doc.path}" we get a list of all the commit dates for the file from latest to oldest. We parse the list and assign the first and last lines to last_updated_at and created_at. A rough idea of the final code is:

Jekyll::Hooks.register :documents, :post_init do |doc|
  git_dates_log_command = `git log --follow --format=%ad --date=iso-strict -- "#{doc.path}"`
  git_dates = git_dates_log_command.split("\n")["created_at"] ||= git_dates.first["last_updated_at"] ||= git_dates.last

The above snippet is just a rough idea of what could work. Don’t use it as it is. The next section gives some pointers on how to improve it.

Things to Keep in Mind

1. Check that the dates are valid

The first and last lines of the git log output might not be valid dates. For example, git might output a warning or an error message instead of a date. Blindly assigning the first and last lines to created_at and last_updated_at might result in breaking the build. So it is important to check that the dates are valid and that they are actually on the first and last lines.

2. Allow for overriding the dates in the frontmatter

While this is a neat trick, the priority should always be given to the dates specified in the frontmatter.

3. To –follow or not to –follow

The --follow 5 option in git log is used to follow the history of a file across renames. Is a renamed post a new post or an update to an existing post? That’s your decision.

4. Avoid using timeago for post dates

After hours of trying to figure out why Jekyll was still showing “Today” for a post I modified last week, I remembered that I am using the timeago filter from jekyll-timeago plugin. I was rendering the dates using {{ doc.last_modified_at | timeago }}. Now as you know Jekyll is a static site generator, and it renders this as HTML at the time of build, and only then. This means any date rendered with timeago is hardcoded as is in the HTML and won’t change until the next build. I switched all the dates to the "%-d %b %y" format for now. Might use moment.js in the future to get the timeago dates back.

  1. Jekyll Hooks are a way to run code at specific points in the Jekyll build process. The :documents :post_init hook runs after the documents have been read and parsed, but before it is rendered. 

  2. File.ctime returns the creation time of the file. 

  3. File.mtime returns the last modification time of the file. 

  4. git log shows the commit logs. 

  5. git log –follow follows the history of a file across renames.