Well, I was just about to wish you a Merry Christmas and now… New Year’s is just around the corner! For me, it’s always a kind of humbling experience to write the old year for the last time, and write the new year for the first time.
It is just this amazing sign of something bigger and beyond ourselves–the enormity of time.
One thing we often don’t think about is that the new year is actually a historical phenomenon–not all cultures and people have invoked the new year on January 1. Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve written about the erstwhile Byzantine New Year (September 1), which we continue to commemorate as the start of our ecclesiastical year. But there have been many other new years in time and space.
And so, I thought it might be fun to think a bit about the history of January 1. Below is a slightly amended excerpt from my dissertation that summarizes how our current civil new year came to be. I should note upfront that since people in Eastern realms of the former Roman Empire tended to adhere to the Byzantine new year, you won’t hear much about the Orthodox Church. Nonetheless, this is a history that is relevant to all of us in modern society.
The new year, as cultural anthropologist Anthony Aveni once put it, is a “point of entry” into a recurring loop of time that would otherwise be barred from access. Throughout history, human societies have chosen numerous different such points to exit the old year and step into a new loop of time, from lunar new years to solar, calendrical, religious or civil new years.
1 January is one such point in time that has offered many people and cultures an opportunity to pause and reflect before marching forward into the new year. It dates back to the start of the Julian calendar in 45 BC.
The Julian (or “old”) calendar officially placed the start of Rome’s fiscal and juridical year on the calends of the first month. The “new year” signalled the transition of funds and payments, and also the inauguration of new political officers. It also coincided with bawdy pagan celebrations—it was customary to extend the saturnalia (i.e. the pagan festivals in honor of Saturn that began on 17 December) into the new civil year. Despite the legalization of Christianity in 325, 1 January retained its celebratory and sometimes even pagan connotations in some areas of the Roman Empire. This, at least, is the sense one gets from several extant homilies written by Church fathers, who repudiated the celebrations .
To admonish their flocks in the face of the new year, such clergy members preached special sermons lamenting the new year’s excessive celebrations and encouraging Christians to arrange their upcoming year to allow for spending more time hearing and heeding the Gospel. It’s a thought that, I’m sure, still resonates among clergymen and laity alike.
The post-Nicene Church erected a further safeguard against the influence of paganism by gradually pushing the civil New Year back from 1 January to Christmas, increasingly observed on 25 December.
In doing so, annual temporal circuits were aligned with the broader, Anno Domini scheme of historical time.
Although common knowledge of 1 January as the Roman New Year never fully disappeared, the early middle ages witnessed a flowering of “new” New Year’s dates across Europe. Depending on one’s geographic location, the old Roman new year was replaced by Christmas (25 December), the spring quatember (1 March), the vernal equinox, the Annunciation (25 March), and the autumnal quatember or Byzantine New Year (1 September).
In the face of these new new years, the date of January 1 came to be significant for other reasons. In the western Church, for example, it was gradually overshadowed by the feast of Christ’s circumcision (at least since the sixth century observed on the octave of Christ’s birth). Meanwhile, in the eastern realm of the former Roman Empire, the date was most directly associated with the Feast of St. Basil (although the Orthodox Church also observes the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1 as well).
This flowering of new years subsided in the late middle ages. During that time, there was a profound shift towards what historians call the “Circumcision style” civil New Year’s on 1 January. The precise details and impetus for this shift are not fully understood, though it was likely an effort to harmonize the many different New Years floating around in medieval Europe. Whatever the case, an organic transition that saw the New Year gradually remitted to 1 January occurred between the twelfth and early seventeenth century.
Hope this sheds some light on why we celebrate the new year when we do! I’ll be back soon to talk in more everyday terms about what a new civil year means in the life of faith and our efforts as Christians to “redeem” the times (Eph. 5:16).
 Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6-7. Two prominent preachers of New Year’s sermons include St. Augustine and Bishop Asterius of Amasea (d. 410). The following works are helpful for locating early Christian examples of New Year’s sermons: Sister Mary Sarch [sic] Muldowney, ed., The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959), 49–58; Bishop Asterius of Amasia, “On the Festival of the Calends,” in Ancient Sermons for Modern Times, trans. Galusha Anderson and Edgar Johnson Goodspeed (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1904), 113–30.