New Year’s Day is a festival observed in most of the world on Jan. 1, the first day of the year in the modern Gregorian calendar. Jan. 1 is also New Year’s Day on the Julian calendar, but this is not the same day as the Gregorian one. While most solar calendars (like the Gregorian and Julian) begin the year regularly at or near the northern winter solstice, cultures that observe a lunisolar (employing a calendar year divided according to the phases of the moon but adjusted in average length to fit the length of the solar cycle) or lunar calendar celebrate their New Year’s Day (such as the Chinese New Year and the Islamic New Year) at less fixed points relative to the solar year.
In pre-Christian Rome under the Julian calendar, the day was dedicated to Janus, god of gateways and beginnings, for whom January is also named. From Roman times until the middle of the 18th century, the new year was celebrated at various stages and in various parts of Christian Europe on Dec. 25, on March 1, on March 25, and on the movable feast of Easter.
In the present day with most countries now using the Gregorian calendar as their civil calendar, Jan. 1, according to that calendar, is among the most celebrated public holidays in the world, often observed with fireworks at the stroke of midnight as the new year starts in each time zone. Other global New Year’s Day traditions include making New Year’s resolutions and calling one’s friends and family.
The ancient Babylonian calendar was lunisolar and around the year 2000 BC began observing a spring festival and the New Year during the month of Nisan, around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the first day of the year. The calendar had just 10 months, beginning with March. That the New Year once began with the month of March is still reflected in some of the names of the months. September through to December, the ninth through to the 12th months of the Gregorian calendar, were originally positioned as the seventh through to the 10th months. (Septem is Latin for “seven”; octo, “eight”; novem, “nine”; and decem, “ten.”) Roman legend usually credited their second king Numa with the establishment of the two new months of Ianuarius and Februarius. These were first placed at the end of the year, but at some point came to be considered the first two months instead.
The January kalend (Latin: Kalendae Ianuariae), the start of the month of January, came to be celebrated as the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BC. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating. Still, private and religious celebrations around the March new year continued for some time, and there is no consensus on the question of the timing for Jan. 1’s new status. Once it became the New Year, however, it became a time for family gatherings and celebrations. A series of disasters, notably including the failed rebellion of M. Aemilius Lepidus in 78 BC, established a superstition against allowing Rome’s market days to fall on the kalends of January, and the pontiffs employed intercalation to avoid its occurrence.
The Julian calendar, proposed by Julius Caesar in AUC 708 [Ab urbe condita (Latin: ‘from the founding of the City’), or anno urbis conditae (Latin: ‘in the year since the city’s founding’] (46 BC), was a reform of the Roman calendar. It took effect on Jan. 1 AUC 709 (45 BC), by edict. The calendar became the predominant calendar in the Roman Empire and subsequently most of the Western world for more than 1,600 years. The Roman calendar began the year on 1 January, and this remained the start of the year after the Julian reform. However, even after local calendars were aligned to the Julian calendar, they started the New Year on different dates. The Alexandrian calendar in Egypt started on Aug. 29 (Aug. 30 after an Alexandrian leap year). Several local provincial calendars were aligned to start on the birthday of the Emperor Augustus, Sept. 23. The indiction caused the Byzantine year, which used the Julian calendar, to begin on 1 September; this date is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for the beginning of the liturgical year.
At various times and in various places throughout mediaeval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on Dec. 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus; March 1 in the old Roman style; March 25 in honor of Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation, the date of the conception of Jesus); and on the movable feast of Easter.
As a date in the Christian calendar, New Year’s Day liturgically marked the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, which is still observed as such in the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and by the Eastern Orthodox Church (Julian calendar, see below). The Roman Catholic Church celebrates on this day the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Among the 7th-century pagans of Flanders and the Netherlands, it was the custom to exchange gifts at the winter solstice. This custom was deplored by Saint Eligius (died 659 or 660), who warned the Flemish and Dutch: “(Do not) make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf, compare Puck] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” However, on the date that European Christians celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision, they exchanged Christmas presents because the feast fell within the 12 days of the Christmas season in the Western Christian liturgical calendar; The custom of exchanging Christmas gifts in a Christian context is traced back to the Biblical Magi who gave gifts to the Child Jesus. In Tudor England, Jan. 1 (as the Feast of the Circumcision, not New Year’s Day), along with Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, was celebrated as one of three main festivities among the twelve days of Christmastide.
Most nations of Europe and their colonies officially adopted Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day somewhat before they adopted the Gregorian calendar. France changed to Jan. 1 from 1564, most of Germany did so from 1544, the Netherlands from 1556 or 1573 according to sect, Italy (not being united) did so on a variety of dates, Spain and Portugal from 1556, Sweden, Norway and Denmark from 1599, Scotland from 1600, and Russia from 1725. England, Wales, Ireland and Britain’s American colonies did so from 1752.
Until 1752, the Kingdom of Great Britain and its Empire at the time (except in Scotland, Jan. 1 since 1600) had retained March 25 as the official start of the year (though informal use of January 1 had become common.) With the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, Britain and the Empire formally adopted Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day and, with the same Act, also discarded the Julian calendar (though the actions are otherwise unrelated). The Act came into effect “following the last said day of December 1751.”
(By 1750, an 11 day difference between the older Julian and the newer and more accurate Gregorian calendars also needed to be adjusted for. There was some religious dissent regarding feast days being moved, especially Christmas Day (see Old Christmas) and isolated communities continued the old reckoning to a greater or lesser extent. 1800 and 1900 were leap years in the Julian calendar but not in the Gregorian, so the difference increased to 12 then 13 days. 2000 was a leap year in both calendars.)
In the Gwaun Valley in Wales, the New Year is celebrated on Jan. 13, still based on the 19th century difference in the calendars.
Foula, in the Shetland islands celebrates Yule (‘Old Christmas’ rather than the December solstice) on Jan. 6 and Newerday on Jan. 13. Again, both dates reflect the 19th century reckoning and were not moved again in 1900.
At various stages during the first half of the 20th century, all countries in Eastern Christendom adopted the Gregorian calendar as their civil calendar but continued, and have continued into modern times, to use the Julian calendar for ecclesiastical purposes. As Jan. 1 (Julian) equates to Jan. 14 (Gregorian), religious celebration of the New Year on this date may seem strange to Western eyes.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.