According to tradition it was the Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, who first established the 1st of January as the beginning of the New Year. He named the month after Janus, the Roman god of doors.
However, Janus in some Celtic traditions is the guardian of the past, present and future, the one who guards the entrances and exits to other worlds. He was said to have a double-faced image, one face looking deep into the past and the other looking out into the future. It is said Janus was ‘acquired’ by the Romans after they defeated of the Celts. Caesar is reputed to have celebrated the first New Year’s Day with a violent attack on the revolutionary Jewish forces in Galilee, shedding blood in every street. Over time, the Romans observed the New Year by engaging in drunken orgies that was supposed to have lasted six days.
Some pagan cultures observed the Winter Solstice as the turning point of the year, which marked the beginning of the lengthening of days and was a celebration of the return of the sun. The days between the Solstice and the New Year were supposed to be a magical period during which anything was possible.
The spread of Christianity saw the demise of pagan holidays and, while some were abandoned entirely, others were incorporated into the Christian calendar. By the early medieval period, most of the Christian ruled countries of Europe observed 25 March (Annunciation Day) as New Year’s Day. This date was observed because this was the day that the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus, thus becoming the Mother of God.
Over 1,000 years later, William the Conqueror and his Norman army defeated the English army under King Harold at Hastings in 1066. William then took over the ruler-ship of the country and was crowned King of England on 25 December 1066. Following his coronation, he passed a decree that England should return to the date established by the Roman’s (1 January) as the first day of the year. However, many people were against this ruling and it was eventually rejected, thus the English reverted back to 25 March, aligning themselves once again with other European Christian countries.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII abandoned the traditional Julian calendar because there was an inaccuracy in its measurement of time. This had caused the seasons to slip behind by about one day per century. In order to correct the inaccuracy, the Pontiff introduced the ‘Gregorian calendar’, which in affect removed ten days from the calendar to bring it in line. This was made effective on 4 October 1582, with the following day becoming 15 October. New Year’s Day was also declared as 1 January.
People have welcomed the New Year with rituals and celebrations from ancient times. In medieval times during the days leading up to the New Year, people began putting their ‘lives in order’. It was a time to pay off debts; mend differences and quarrels; clean homes; and give alms to the needy. It was also a time for reflecting on one’s own life, taking into account failures and making resolutions to change the parts of your life that you felt were unpleasing. In some cultures, people even jumped into the sea as a means of cleansing themselves in preparation for the coming year. Some people made human effigies and stuffed them with straw.
These were burnt at the stroke of midnight as a symbol of ridding themselves of the past. Some people opened the back door to let out the old year and opened the front door to welcome in the New Year. In some cultures, people would not sweep out their houses on New Year’s Day, as it would be sweeping out the luck for the coming year. In fact, people were warned not to remove anything, not even trash from the house until the first day of the year had passed. There was nothing to worry about if you brought something into the house on that day as it supposed to insure abundance for the household during the coming year. If you had to take something out of the house, then you had to bring something into the house first. There is a custom in the United States of spending New Year’s Eve with the one you love and kissing them at midnight to insure that the relationship will flourish during the coming year.
The custom of sending greetings and good wishes for the future on the threshold of the New Year is extremely old also. In the old days, people opened their door all over Galway to greet each other at midnight to the sound of the ships in the docks sounding off their horns. People gathered around St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church as the bells were rung to welcome in the New Year. It was then that people greeted each other with wishes of health and prosperity for the coming year. Young lovers looked to the future with renewed vows and hope. While almost every culture observes the custom of sending greetings, its origins is really lost in the ‘mists of antiquity’.
Today the custom is really a simple greeting of ‘Happy New Year’ and in many cases that sent by text. However, in the past people made a serious effort when sending a New Year greeting to a friend or loved one. Our forefathers allowed more time for such matters and spared neither paper, ink, words nor sentiments. The following New Year greeting was published in Nuremberg in 1662:
Most Fair and Virtuous Maiden! As the Old Year, by God’s Grace, draws to a happy close and the joyous entry of the New Year approaches, I am impelled by the aspiration, which I have so often in the past protected to be the servant and slave of my most exquisite, dearly and honourably loved mistress, to whom I wish that she may be granted by the Almighty, a joyful beginning to the coming year and the happy completion of many other years besides. May the Most High who initiates, guides and completes all our actions, determines the times of their origin and consummation, preserve in the future as in the past the rose-like bloom of her most gracious youth in the delight of its freshness, and shield it with His Wings of Grace from storms of ill-health or ill-hap, and bless and crown her life with maidenly well-being, and grant me the much-desired occasion to testify to her, better in this year than in that which has gone past, my devoted obedience.
One hundred years later, in 1762, the New Year greeting had shortened when a citizen of Erlangen, Germany came up the novel idea of one greeting for all. This was published in a local newspaper: ‘I wish everybody that neither lighting nor thunder, hail nor frost, snow nor heat, St Anthony’s fire nor apoplexy, hunger nor cramps, in short, noting evil plague him in the coming year. May the Lord be our Deliverer, now as ever, and grant to every man, whatever his station, whatever he would wish for himself.’