January 1 has been described as the nearest thing to a Universal holiday. That is a tribute to the enduring legacy of Western Imperialism and cultural dominance, which for solid, practical business reasons has overridden local calendars and traditions around the world so that most countries now celebrate New Year’s Day on this date, even if they cleave to local calendars as well.
But it wasn’t always so.
Of course in world domination circles it got a good start when the Romans chose to begin their calendar with the month of January. As you may recall from school, the month is named for the two-faced god Janus who was celebrated on the first of the month named for him. He was said to look back to the old year and forward to the new.
During the Roman Republic around 156 BC it was also important as the day that the two consuls—the highest elective offices—began their one year terms.
As is often the case, things changed when the Republic became an Empire. One of Julius Caesar’s most important acts was the adoption of a new solar calendar with twelve roughly equal months. After his assassination the Senate in 42 BC voted to deify him and celebrate his feast on January 1 of the Julian calendar named in his honor.
You would think that would have settled matters, at least in the territories controlled by the Empire.
And you would be dead wrong. As the hold of the Empire unraveled over the centuries and Europe plunged into what would be called the Dark Ages, celebrations of the New Year devolved by local custom or the whim of local Bishops. In pagan lands both the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox were sometimes used. Various Christian festivals were picked, including Christmas Day after it was finally pegged to December 25, the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, or even Easter, a feast tied to the Lunar calendar which had a disconcerting habit of wandering all over the late winter, early spring months of the Julian.
The Orthodox in the remnants of the Eastern Empire marked September 1 as the beginning of the New Year.
The English started out with the traditional Roman celebration, but after the last of the Legions retreated, they celebrated New Years on the Annunciation, known locally as the Lady Day between 12th Century and the very late year of 1752, when the Kingdom finally adopted the new fangled Gregorian Calendar which attempted to correct for the inexactitudes of the Julian Calendar.
Pope Gregory XIII had promulgated the new calendar by a Papal Bull in 1582, but it took a long time for everyone to get with the program. Most of the Orthodox never did, although by then they had moved their New Year feast to January 1, which is why, on the liturgical calendars of the East if not the legal ones, that date is 13 after the Western celebration.
The dates of the re-adoption of New Year’s celebrations on January 1 sometimes came before local authorities recognized the new calendar and sometimes, as in England, at the same time.
Wikipedia lists the following dates for adoption.
1522 The Republic of Venice
1544 Holy Roman Empire (most of modern Germany, Austria and nearby duchies and principalities.)
1556 Spain, Portugal
1559 Prussia, Sweden
1576 Southern Netherlands
1583 United Provinces of the Netherlands (northern)
1752 Great Britain (excluding Scotland) and its colonies—that was us.
As you can see the Scots beat the English by 150 years. That might have been why the celebration of New Years on January 1 became so important to them—it became an act of defiance to English domination. Scotland has many colorful New Year’s traditions, the consumption of large quantities of fine whiskey among them. The Scots' revelry, in fact contributed much to the wild celebrations that became popular all over the British Isles and in America in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
And, of course, the Scots contributed the poem by their national bard, Robert Burns that became the international carol of the holiday. Of course he did not mean Auld Lang Syne to be a New Year’s song. How it came to be is a story for another day.
However you choose to celebrate tonight, may your New Year be a good one.
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