Or How We Got New Years’ Day
Some atheists, Muslims and Christian fundamentalists like to grumble and gibe that the celebration of Christmas and Easter are “pagan.” They are right and they are wrong. They are right inasmuch as the wellsprings of our Western culture are deep in the pre-Christian cultures of Europe. They are wrong because the early Christians, like the Hebrews before them, saw their religion as a contrast and a corrective to the prevailing pagan culture.
Like cultural iconoclasts shall Christians therefore attempt to purge all vestiges of paganism from our modern world? Must we give up our Christmas tree and cast out our Easter eggs? If so, then we must also re-name the days of the week and refuse to honor the pagan deities Tiu (Tuesday) Wotan (Wednesday) Thor (Thursday) Frige (Friday) and Saturn (Saturday) not to mention the worship of the Sun and Moon (Sunday and Monday)
Our cultural cleansing must continue, and we must demand that the names of the months of the year be purged of their demonic and absurd pagan associations! Out Janus, the two faced god of January! Begone Mars for March, the goddess Maia for May and Juno to follow. New Years’ Day! The horror! That the beginning of the year should be celebrated at the beginning of January is pagan through and through!
True Christianity is culturally inclusive and never iconoclastic. It affirms the past as the foundation for the future. Our Western culture is deeply rooted in the classic civilizations of Greece and Rome, but also in the pre Christian pagan cultures of Europe. The ancient customs have merged, developed and adapted to changing times, but they are not to be scorned simply because they are pagan or because they are from the past. A good example of how an originally pagan custom has developed into a modern celebration is New Years’ Day.
Calendars and Kings
The earliest records of a New Year celebration are from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. In an agricultural civilization, the new year was heralded not in mid winter, but at the Spring equinox in mid-March. Following these already ancient customs, the first Roman calendar had ten months and also recognized mid-March as the beginning of the year. This is why September, October, November and December have their names: from March they were the seventh (septem) eighth (octem) ninth ( novem) and tenth (decem) months.
The second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius added January and February to the calendar and in 153 BC we have the first record of January first being celebrated as New Years’ Day. Its change was decreed for civil reasons (the consuls began their term at that time) but many people still recognized mid-March as the start of the year.
When Julius Caesar replaced the old lunar based calendar with a solar calendar he also formally established the beginning of January as New Year’s Day. As the Empire fell and Europe transitioned to the new religion and rule of Christianity, the vestiges of pagan culture were purged. New Years’ Day at the beginning of January was officially eliminated at the Council of Tours in 597, and across Europe the start of a new year was celebrated at various times that connected with the Christian calendar: Christmas, Easter or most significantly March 25.
Calendars and Christians
The date of March 25 not only connected with the most ancient celebrations of the new year at the Spring equinox, but in the Christian calendar March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation — the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son. The date of March 25 was determined by the Jewish belief that great men were conceived on the same day of the year as their death. Jesus Christ died on March 25, (so the theory goes) which means he was conceived on March 25. (Incidentally this is also the origin for the traditional date of Christmas — nine months from March 25.)
Medieval Christians understood that the beginning of the life of the Son of God in the Virgin Mary’s womb was the beginning of God’s work among mankind, the restoration and redemption of the world and the beginning of a new creation. It was therefore theologically fitting that March 25 or Ladyday (in honor of the Virgin Mary) should be celebrated as New Years’ Day. And so it was for a thousand years.
For in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII tinkered with Julius Caesar’s ancient calendar. Because of imprecise calculations the date of Easter had been drifting and the pope decided it needed fixing. Part of the reform was to re-establish January first as New Years’ Day. Seeing this as papal presumption, the Eastern Orthodox rejected the reform. Seeing this as not only papal presumption, but paganism restored, the Protestants also rejected the new Gregorian calendar. The British did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. The Greeks held out until 1923. The monks of Mt Athos in Greece still cling to the Julian calendar.
Fireworks and Frodo Baggins
What about the fall of Sauron — the nemesis in The Lord of the Rings? J.R.R.Tolkien was very sly in the way he wove Christian symbolism into his epic myth. He records the dates of the great events in the cycle of the ring, and we discover that it is on March 25 that the ring of power is cast into the fires of Mount Doom, and so the destruction of Sauron heralds a new beginning for Middle Earth. Thus Tolkien gives a nod to the medieval Christian tradition that March 25 is the true New Years’ Day.
As you celebrate New Years’ Day remember that for one thousand years the welcoming of a new year was not just a calendar event, but a culturally religious event which linked the renewal of nature with the redemption of the world.
As for me, I’ll have a drink and set off some fireworks on New Years’ Eve, but on March 25 I will also observe Ladyday and like all good hobbit lovers, will celebrate Tolkien Reading Day with a meeting of friends, the reading of Tolkien, a pint of ale and a smoke of pipe-weed.
Dwight Longenecker is the author of over twenty books on religion and culture. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com