Why do we celebrate the New Year on January 1 when, for most of recorded history, we held the New Year to start in March? What role did the Catholic and Anglican celebrations of Christmas play in the creation of our modern New Year’s Eve celebration on Dec. 31? Answers to these and more, plus St. Sylvester’s Day and the 7th Day of Christmas, all in today’s post.
This post has been updated
To understand most anything about Western civilization, as Bookworm likes to say, “you have to start with the Romans.” In this case, to find the origins of our modern New Year’s celebration on January 1, you actually have to go back a bit farther in time.
The Pagans, the Roman Calendar, & the Julian Calendar
Virtually all of the ancient pagan civilizations kept solar or lunar calendars, often dating their new year from a solstice or an equinox. Most common were civilizations like the ancient Babylonians, circa 2,000 B.C., who counted a new year in our month of March, from the time of the spring equinox and the start of a new planting season.
Ancient Romans did likewise. The Roman Calendar they created, circa 500 B.C., began the new year with the planting season in March. The Romans used this calendar for half a millennium until, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar introduced a more accurate replacement, the Julian calendar. Caeser moved the new year from Spring to the 1st day of January. Further, Caeser ordered a pagan celebration at the New Year in honor Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and gateways. The Julian calendar spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, becoming the calendar used in Western nations for the next 1,500 years.
As explained here, syncretism meant that the Church, in seeking to convert pagans to Christianity, would place Christian celebrations atop pagan ones, adopting into the celebration any of the pagan customs that did not conflict with Christian dogma. This can be found as part and parcel of most Christian celebrations, including Christmas.
A date for Christmas does not exist in the text of the Bible, so the Early Church arbitrarily assigned it to Dec. 25, the same date as several of Rome’s pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. That would become central to this story, but not for over a thousand years.
England Adopts a New Year in March
In 1152 Anno Domini, the English adopted Lady Day, a Christian celebration that falls on March 25, as the start of their calendar year:
As a year-end and quarter-day that conveniently did not fall within or between the seasons for ploughing and harvesting, Lady Day was a traditional day on which year-long contracts between landowners and tenant farmers would begin and end in England and nearby lands (although there were regional variations). Farmers’ time of “entry” into new farms and onto new fields was often this day. As a result, farming families who were changing farms would travel from the old farm to the new one on Lady Day.
Lady Day, better known as The Feast of the Annunciation, “commemorates the visit of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, during which he informed her that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” England, and later its many colonies, would continue to count the New Year on March 25 for the next 600 years.
The 16th Century Reformation, the Calvinists, and the Introduction of the Gregorian Calendar
The Western world, in terms of the calendar at least, remained stable for almost 1,600 years, That changed in the volatile 16th century. First came The Reformation, which began in 1517. Many of the Christian faithful rebelled against the Catholic Church’s widespread corruption and abuses. Breaking from the Church, the rebels began to create myriad Protestant Christian sects, each designed to correct the ills that had grown in Catholicism.
The English Reformation followed in 1527, led by King Henry VIII, a man who, not long before, had been a great defender of the Catholic Church. Henry chose to embrace the Protestant Reformation when he felt himself in need of a male heir and believed his then-wife to be barren. Henry had petitioned the Catholic Church for a papal grant of annulment of his marriage only to have the Pope refuse it in 1527. Henry VIII’s response was to create the Anglican Church as the new state Church of England. Henry retained most of the Catholic dogma and traditions but for one — Henry VIII named himself the head of the Anglican Church, cutting off all relations with the Papacy.
Try as he might, though, Henry VIII’s English Reformation could not be contained to Anglicanism. Henry had opened the floodgates for Protestant ideals into England and Scotland, from which a number of sects grew. One Protestant theologian, in particular, John Calvin, articulated a number of religious precepts that came to define the beliefs of many “Calvinist” Christian sects. In England, the most important Calvinist sect was the Puritan and, in Scotland, it was the Presbyterian. Those two Calvinist sects were nearly as critical of Anglicanism as they were of the Catholic Church. As such, the Calvinist sects in England were commonly referred to as “Dissenters,” for they dissented from the state religious sect of Anglicanism.
The last major event in the 16th century was in 1582. when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian Calendar as a modification of, and replacement for, the Julian calendar. Over the 1,500 years of its use, the Julian calendar had proven to be “off” in its calculation of a solar year by one full day per century — a mistake that had added up by 1582. The Gregorian calendar retained the twelve-month Julian calendar but rejiggered the calculation of leap years “so as to make the average calendar year 365.2425 days long, more closely approximating the 365.2422-day ‘tropical’ or ‘solar’ year that is determined by the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.” To bring the Julian dates in 1582 in line with the Gregorian calculations, every country adopting the Gregorian Calendar had to jump ahead 11 days. The Gregorian Calendar was quickly adopted throughout most of Christian Europe but not in England.
Christmas and the Calendar in 17th and 18th century England
England’s Anglicans and Puritans, and Scotland’s Presbyterians, all shared one thing in common – a rabid and visceral hatred of Catholicism and all things associated with the papacy. That affected adoption of the Gregorian Calendar reforms, Christmas celebrations, and the celebration of a secular New Year.
As noted, while the Anglicans spouted a hatred of Catholicism, they retained most of the Catholic dogma and traditions when they broke away from the Papacy in Rome. One of the things the Anglicans retained was the Christmastide celebrations during the 12 days from Christmas to the Epiphany.
The Calvinist Puritans and Presbyterians took a very different view of Christmas and Christmas celebrations. Both were in agreement that Christmas set on Dec. 25 was a papal invention with no basis in the Bible; therefore, Christmas should not be celebrated. The Puritans also objected to the licentiousness of the Christmas celebrations of their time. For instance:
Philip Stubbes’ complaint in the Anatomie of Abuses (1583), which dealt with the celebrations as part of a broad attack on the theatre and other follies of the nation, was that Christmas was the time of the year when the abuses were most flagrant. “Who is ignorant,” he asked, that at Christmas time “more mischief is committed than in all the year besides? What masking and mumming? whereby robberies, whoredom, murder, and what not, is committed? What dicing and carding, what banqueting and feasting, is then used more than in all the year besides!” In Histriomastix in 1632, William Prynne took Christmas as the worst example of the festivals that were devoted to the theatre and spent in “amorous, mixed, voluptuous, un-Christian, that I say not, pagan dancing.” Why, he asked, could not the English nation observe festivals and especially Christmas” without drinking, roaring, healthing, dicing, carding, masques and stage-plays? which better become the sacrifices of Bacchus, than the resurrection, the incarnation of our most blessed Saviour.” If Turks and infidels were to behold the Bacchanalian Christmas extravagances would they not think our Saviour to be a “glutton, an epicure, a wine-bibber, a devil, a friend of publicans and sinners?” The celebrations were derived from the Saturnalia and the Bacchanalia. Christmas, as it was kept, could be more truly termed Devil’s mass or Saturn’s mass.
Where the Anglicans and the Puritans agreed was in their rejection of the Gregorian Calendar. While ever more of the rest of the western world adopted the Gregorian Calendar, England and its colonies, for the next 170 years, held fast to the Julian Calendar and the marking of each New Year on Lady Day, March 25. It wasn’t until 1751 that England’s Parliament passed “an Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use.” By that law, England and its many colonies adopted the Gregorian Calendar and began counting each new year from the wholly secular date of January 1. As Ben Franklin wrote of the effect of the law in 1752, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on Sept. 2, and not have to get up until Sept. 14.”
Scotland, Hogmanay, and the Modern Secular Celebration on New Year’s Eve
The Calvinist Presbyterians in Scotland broke with their English brethren over the Gregorian Calendar, opting to adopt it in 1599. As part and parcel thereof, Scotland began counting the turn of the New Year on January 1. The Presbyterians also broke with their English brethren over the advisability of raucous celebrations during the bleak midwinter, at least when wholly secular. Soon after adopting the Gregorian Calendar, perhaps as early as 1604, the Scots began to celebrate the New Year in a secular celebration they called Hogmanay, the Scottish word for the last day of the New Year.
The celebration of Hogmanay borrows from pagan and, particularly, Norse customs of old.
Hogmanay street parties have become legendary in Scotland, with Edinburgh’s torchlight procession, firework display, ceilidh and concert in Princes Street Gardens among the most well-known.
Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire plays host to the Fireballs parade. Traditionally, it was a cleansing ritual to burn off any bad spirits left from the old year so the New Year could begin clean and purified.
A piper leads a procession of people through the streets just before midnight as they swing balls of fire above their heads.
Customs vary throughout Scotland and usually “include gift-giving and visiting the homes of friends and neighbors, with special attention given to the ‘first-foot, the first guest of the new year.’” You would want the “first-foot” into your home to bring “good luck, warmth, good food, hospitality and good cheer for the coming year.” The luck came from ensuring that the first footer was a dark-haired man, as were many of the Scots. The custom probably derives from the days of the Viking invasions, when having a blond-haired man showing up at your door wielding an axe was considered to be – not surprisingly – a bit of bad luck. As to the rest, the first footer usually brings with him “a lump of coal, some salt, black bun (a type of pastry-covered fruitcake), shortbread and a ‘dram’ of whiskey.”
On Hogmanay, “the largest Scottish cities – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen – hold all-night celebrations, as do Stirling and Inverness. The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations are among the largest in the world” with hundreds of thousands attending.
The Scots’ Hogmanay celebrations have influenced New Year’s celebrations throughout the Western world over the past three centuries. And it seems appropriate that, 2,000 years after Caeser marked the New Year on January 1 with a pagan celebration, we have come full circle, also marking the New Year on January 1 by holding secular celebrations with pagan roots in its honor.
A Bit of Hogmanay Comes to America
The most obvious of the Hogmanay customs that has spread to the U.S. is the singing at midnight of the poem Auld Lang Syne, which Robert Burns wrote in 1788 in his only barely comprehensible Scottish version of English. Auld Lang Syne can be loosely translated as “for old times sake.” Here are the original lyrics and an English English translation:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
We twa hae run about the braes,
We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
We two have run about the hills,
We two have paddled in the stream,
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
Here is Bookworm’s favorite rendition of Auld Lang Syne. It is part of Annalise Emmerick’s This Love Won’t Break Your Heart.
And the following is an instrumental of the song played by a piper of the Royal Scots Dragoons, played with scenic pictures of Scotland in the background.
On the 7th Day of Christmas, the Feast of St. Sylvester
When Christianity was vying with pagan religions in the 4th century Roman Empire, the early Church sought to redirect pagan celebrations to Christianity. Practicing syncretism, the Early Church placed the Feast of Pope St. Sylvester atop the Dec. 31 – January 1 celebration of the pagan Roman God Janus.
Sylvester I became Pope in 314, the year after Constantine the Great had issued the Edict of Milan, making it lawful to practice Christianity in the Roman Empire, and Sylvester held the papacy until his death in 335. Many of the hugely significant events that occurred during his papacy are associated with Constantine, although it is unclear what relationship Sylvester had with Constantine and what role Sylvester played in those events.
The pope . . . took part in the negotiations concerning Arianism and the Council of Nicæa . . . The pontiff also sent legates to the first ecumenical council. Still it is not certain whether Constantine had arranged beforehand with Sylvester concerning the actual convening of the council, nor whether there was an express papal confirmation of the decrees beyond the signatures of the papal legates . . .
During Sylvester’s pontificate were built the great churches founded at Rome by Constantine, e.g. the basilica and baptistery of the Lateran near the former imperial palace where the pope lived, the basilica of the Sessorian palace (Santa Croce), the Church of St. Peter in the Vatican, and several cemeterial churches over the graves of martyrs. No doubt the pope helped towards the construction of these churches. Sylvester’s memory is especially connected with the titular Church of Equitius . . .
No special traditions have passed down to us that are associated with St. Sylvester’s Day save one. On that day, the Church offers a plenary indulgence for those reciting the Te Deum in thanksgiving for the past year. The Te Deum, also known as the Ambrosian Hymn, dates to 387 A.D. The English translation is:
We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubin and Seraphin : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man : thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.
O Lord, save thy people : and bless thine heritage.
Govern them : and lift them up for ever.
Day by day : we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name : ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord : to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us : have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us : as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted : let me never be confounded.
The Donation of Constantine
The combined legacy of Pope Sylvester and Constantine is tied together in another important way. It involved a forged document, probably created in the 8th century, long after both men had passed, but that played a significant role in the struggle between the papacy and the secular kings for power in Europe. It was the so-called “Donation of Constantine.”
[The forgery] seemed to successfully support the later Gelasian doctrine of papal supremacy, papal auctoritas (authority) guiding imperial potestas (power) . . . In the fiction . . . the Emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by the virtue of the baptismal water administered by Sylvester.
The Emperor, abjectly grateful, not only confirmed the bishop of Rome as the primate above all other bishops, he resigned his imperial insignia and walked before Sylvester’s horse holding the Pope’s bridle as the papal groom. The Pope, in return, offered the crown of his own good will to Constantine, who abandoned Rome to the pope and took up residence in Constantinople. “The doctrine behind this charming story is a radical one,” Norman F. Cantor observes: “The pope is supreme over all rulers, even the Roman emperor, who owes his crown to the pope and therefore may be deposed by papal decree”. Such a useful legend quickly gained wide circulation . . .
And as pointed out here:
The first pope to directly invoke the decree was Pope Leo IX, in a letter sent in 1054 to Michael I Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He cited a large portion of the document, believing it genuine, furthering the debate that would ultimately lead to the East–West Schism. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Donation was often cited in the investiture conflicts between the papacy and the secular powers in the West.
“Ah, Constantine, how much evil was born, not from your conversion, but from that donation that the first wealthy Pope received from you!”
The forgery was accepted as authentic until, in the 15th century, the Catholic priest Lorenzo Valla determined that the text was a forgery based on his analysis of the language used in the manuscript.