Customs of New Year’s Day

Bible Study Supplement                               

New Year’s Day

Historical Study

 

We are going to take a relatively comprehensive look at the origins of New Year’s Day.  This historical study will also include some information on New Year’s Eve as these two go hand and hand.  We will specifically look at the historical origins of past years and compare those with the current traditions that are now celebrated.

 

For this historical portion of the bible study we will not be using any internet resources.  The only resources that will be used are from old books.  So let’s begin…

 

January’s “beginning being near the winter solstice, the year is thus made to present a complete series of the seasonal changes and operations, including equally the first movements of spring, and the death of the annual vegetation in the frozen arms of winter.  Yet the earliest calendars, as the Jewish, the Egyptian, and Greek, did not place the commencement of the year at this point.  It was not done till the formation of the Roman calendar, usually attributed to the second king, Numa Pompilus, whose reign is set down as terminating anno 672 B.C.  Numa, it is said, having decreed that the year should commence now, added two new months to the ten into which the year had previously been divided, calling the first Januarius, in honour of Janus, the deity supposed to preside over doors (Lat. Janua, a door), who might very naturally be resumed also to have something to do with the opening of the year.”1  “The ancient Jewish year, which opened with the 25th of March, continued long to have a legal position in Christian countries.  In England, it was not till 1752 that the 1st of January became the initial day of the legal.”2  “In Soctland, this desirable change was made by a decress of James VI. In privy council, in the year 1600.  IT was effected in France in 1564; in Holland, Protestant Germany, and Russia, in 1700; and in Sweden in 1753.”3

 

‘Long ere the lingering dawn of that blithe morn

Which ushers in the year, the roosting cock,

Flapping his wings, repeats his larum shrill;

But on that morn no busy flail obeys

His rousing call; no sounds but sounds of joy

Salute the year – the first-foot’s entering step,

That sudden on the floor is welcome heard,

Ere blushing maids have braided up their hair;

The laugh, the hearty kiss, the good new year

Pronounced with honest warmth.  In village, grauge,

And borough town, the steaming flagon, borne

From house to house, elates the poor man’s heart,

And makes him feel that life has still its joys.

The aged and the young, man, woman, child,

Unite in social glee; even stranger dogs,

Meeting with bristling back, soon lay aside

Their snarling aspect, and in sportive chase,

Excursive scour, or wallow in the snow.

With sober cheerfulness, the grandma eyes

Her offspring round her, all in health and peace;

And, thankful that she’s spared to see this day

Return once more, breathes low a secret prayer,

That God would shed a blessing on their heads.’

Grahame.4

 

Staying up until midnight to cheer Happy New Year has been a custom for quite some time.  New Year’s resolutions have been made by many for some time also.  “The merrymakings of New-Year’s Eve and New-Year’s Day are of very ancient date in England.”5  Toasting a drink on New Year’s Eve is also an old custom.  “A double-handled flagon full of sweetened and spiced wine being handed to the master, or other person presiding, he drinks standing to the general health, as announced by the toastmaster; then passes it to his neighbor on the left hand, who drinks standing to this next neighbor, also standing, as so on it goes, till all have drunk.”6  We are going to once again turn to explanations regarding why New Year’s Day is on the 1st of January.

 

“The ancient Egyptians began their year on September 21, the date of the autumn equinox, and the ancient Greeks began their year on June 21, the date of the summer solstice.  For a short time December 25 was the date of the beginning of the year in New England.”7  “After December 25 had been fixed as the day of the nativity, the church made January 1 a religious festival in commemoration of the circumcision of Jesus.”8  “It was on account of the orgies which accompanied the recurrence of the winter solstice not only among the Romans but among the Teutonic races that the early Christians looked with scant favor upon the whole season.  By the fifth century, however, the 25 of December had become a fixed festival commemorative of our Lord’s Nativity, whereupon the 1st of January assumed a specially sacred character as the octave of Christmas Day and the anniversary of Christ’s circumcision.”14  It should well be noted that according to the Holy Scriptures males where circumcised eight days after they were born.  Including the 25th of December it would be indeed eight days later New Year’s Day.  However, we know that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December.  In fact this might explain why Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December, rather than on the winter solstice’s actual date of December 21st.

 

“So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child…”  Luke 1:59a 

 

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Presidents used to open his house to receive people.  According to a Senator at the time, “Made the President the compliments of the season; had a hearty shake of the hand.  I was asked to partake of the punch and cakes, but declined.  I sat down and we had some chat.  But the diplomatic gentry and foreigners coming in, I embraced the first vacancy to make my bow and wish him a good morning.”9

 

“Among the Romans, after the reformation of the calendar, the first day of January, as well as the entire month, was dedicated to the eponymic god Janus.  He was represented with two faces, on looking forward, the other backward, to indicate that he stood between the old and the new year, with a regard to both.  Throughout January the Romans offered sacrifices to Janus upon twelve altars.”11  “Ovid and other Latin writers of the Empire allude to the suspension of all litigation and strife, the reconciliation of differences between friends, the smoking altars and the white-robed processions to the Capitol, upon the first day of Janus, or New Year’s Day as we now call it.  They also tell of the exchanging of visits, the giving and receiving of presents, the masquerading and the feasting, with which in their time the day was celebrated throughout the Roman Empire.”12

 

There was also a custom of handing out gifts on New Year’s Day in parts of Europe.  People used to give gifts to the royalty, there were also those who would go door to door (usually a group of boys) to get money or food.  Gifts would also be handed out to certain guests at their home.  “The stenae (gifts) were not only exchanged between relatives and friends, but were exacted by the Emperors from their subjects.  Eventually they became so onerous a burden to the people that Claudius limited their cost by a decree.”13  However the Druids all had done this.  “The Druids distributed branches of the sacred mistletoe, cut with peculiar ceremonies, as New Year’s gifts to the people.”10  “The Persians celebrated the beginning of the year by exchanging presents of eggs.”16  However this custom of gift giving, at least nowadays, does not exist in America.  “The custom of exchanging presents on New Year’s, though in Anglo-Saxon countries it has been largely superseded by the giving of Christmas-gifts, is still retained in France and the Latin countries (as when this was written).”15

 

As a Christian you should understand that all of our months, days of the week and named after Roman gods.  After all it is the Roman calendar that most of the world uses today.  So this study of New Year’s Day has perhaps revealed the reason for December 25 being selected as the celebrated birthday of Jesus, if nothing else.  Truly many in our society celebrate New Year’s Eve with drunkenness and all other sorts of debauchery.  Perhaps our generation is worse in many respects than those past societies of old?

 

References:

1.         The Book of Days, Chambers, 1879

2.         Ibid.

3.         Ibid.

4.         Ibid.

5.         Ibid.

6.         Ibid.

7.         Ibid.

8.         Ibid

9.         Unknown Source

10.      Ibid.

11.      Ibid.

12.      Ibid.

13.      Curiosities of Popular Customs, Walsh, 1897

14.      Ibid.

15.      Ibid.

16.      Ibid.

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