Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Happy Medieval New Years

For many, if not most, of the world celebrates New Year’s on January 1st.  This was not often the case, and the history of this celebration is worth visiting.

To understand New Year’s, we must first establish when it is.  The Julian Calendar was still widely used in Europe during the middle ages. This had the first day of the year on January 1st, as did the Gregorian and Roman calendar.  However, local traditions, or customs dictated when New Year’s would be recognized.

Many different dates would be celebrated, depending on your location. These dates included, March 1, March 25, Easter, December 1 and even Christmas.  Some of these days had religious significance such as March 25, which is Feast of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would be the mother of Jesus.

Celebrating New Year’s on January 1st, was established in 45 BC by the Romans.  January is named for the Roman God Janus, who was two faced. One face could see the future, the other the past.

After the fall of Rome in 410 A.D., there was no central government directed dates.  Because of this, local traditions began to take over the calendar.  Now to throw some complicated calendars into the mix.

There was an establishment of liturgical calendar, this is basically a calendar based on religious significant dates of a religion.  In many of these calendars September 1st is the New Year.  Of course, the word significant is subjective, and each religion had different holidays.  Also, consider that these calendars consisted of both fixed dates, and moveable ones (example is Easter). So, we do not muddy the water too much, we shall not address these calendars.

During the centuries, there was an effort to establish a unified date for New Year’s.  in 567 A.D. The Councils of Tours tried to establish New Year’s as January 1st.  The council gets its name from Tours, France which at the time was the center of Catholicism.

In 154 the Holy Roman Empire adopted January 1st as the official start of the New Year. In 1362 most of the Eastern European nations adopted the date.  Greece did not adopt it until 1923.

Perhaps the most fascinating adoptions of January 1st as New Year’s occurred in England.  William the Conqueror established January 1 as new year’s, this coincided with his coronation on Christmas day, and January 1st would be the day Jesus was circumcised. Later, England changed this to March 25th to adjust with rest of Europe.  In 1753 they again reinstated January 1st as New Years.

As with recognition of the date, the type of celebration varied from area to area. In England, New Years was the time of gift giving. In Ireland, people would bang on walls, and rang bells to remove evil spirits from their homes.

The Feast of Fools was celebrated in France. Originally it was a celebration by the clergy.  Later, the lower class would dress up, and make fun of the upper class and nobility, without any ramification. A person would be elected as the Pope of Fools. In “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo, Quasimodo is elected as the Pope of Fools.

Hogmanay is celebrated in Scotland. This celebration has Viking origins and may have originated after their invasions into the country.  It consists of elements of winter festivals and the Norse Yule traditions.  The major part of this celebration if the first-footing.  It is common to visit people at the stroke of midnight of Hogmanay, if the first person to enter your home is a tall dark man (who will bring gifts to the home), this meant good fortune for the next year.

No matter how, or when, you celebrate New Year’s I want to wish each of you, and your families,  a wonderful year to come.
W.A.Rusho is an author, historian, and professional wrestler. You can reach him by email or via his website.

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  1. New Year is still set on different dates in many communities. But the fun part is they also celebrate 1st of January as the New Year. I guess, as long as people are enjoying, it doesn't matter what date they are supposed to celebrate New Year's eve.
    Happy New Year to you in advance William :)

  2. Very interesting post, William. I find your research into festivals and holidays to be fascinating. Happy New Year to you, and all the best for 2018.

  3. Interesting to know that New Year's Day falls on various dates for people around the world. In the UK, it is the time in which New Year's Resoultions are made and broken!

    Happy New Year!

  4. I didn't know all this about the moving around of New Year's Day's date. Lots of historical information. Speaking of, Happy New Year!

  5. Thanks for this post, William. I knew that different cultures can celebrate Christmas on different days but not New Year. How interesting! All best wishes for the New Year, however - and whenever - you decide to celebrate! Monika

  6. Yes we still use the Julian calendar. Caesar hade a huge impact on the world in that respect. It gets really complicated when the Islamic calendar is used. For Muslims the year 1439 started the 21st of september 2017. Besides they don't officially celebrate new year the way we do.