The History of January 1 as the New Year
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Have you ever wondered how January 1 became the New Year? Did you know that Jewish people and the earliest Christians did not observe January 1? Even the Roman Catholic Church resisted the urge to observe January 1 into the eighth century and possibly later.
In the Bible, we learn that the new year for festivals is in the spring just before Passover. This is first explained in Exodus chapter 12 and Leviticus chapter 23. The reckoning for Sabbath years and the Jubilee was observed from the fall feasts (Ex. 23:16, Ex. 34:22, Lev. chapter 25, Deut. 15:1, Deut. 31:10). There’s no mention of a yearly reckoning or count from the winter.
Ancient Roman History
To understand how January 1 became the New Year, we must look at ancient Roman history.
From the primary sources available to us, it appears that the ancient Romans observed a lunar month, which means that the beginning/end of the month was determined by the moon. The first day of each month was called the Kalends or Calends. It coincided with a new phase of the moon.
Their original year was composed of only ten months. The year began in March and ended with December (deci– means tenth). Ovid, who lived from 43 BC–17 AD, wrote about this development in his work titled Fasti (1.27-30, 3.99-138).
“When the founder of the City was setting the calendar in order, he ordained that there should be twice five months in his year…The month of Mars was the first, and that of Venus the second…” (1.27-31, 39)
“…Nor had the ancients as many Kalends as we have now: their year was short by two months…A year was counted when the moon had returned to the full for the tenth time: that number was then in great honour…” (3.99-100, 120-122)
The fact that we still have a month named December is a reminder of old Roman reckoning of time. However, the ten-month calendar had its problems. This reckoning of time is grossly out of sync with the earth’s orbit around the sun (about 365.25 days). Even Ovid identified that they were missing two months. Over the years, this caused the months to move throughout different seasons. This caused great confusion (see Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, ch 59).
Depending on the source one reads, either Romulus (the first king of Rome) or a later king instituted two extra months after December. They were given the names January and February to honor the gods Janus and Februus. The ancient writer Macrobius did an excellent job of summarizing ancient sources on this subject (Saturnalia, 1.12.38-1.14.4). But the months were still reckoned by the moon, so the Roman year came to have 355 days. Intercalary months were still added every few years to keep the year it sync with the sun. March 1 remained the new year.
By the mid-second century BC, January 1 began to take on more importance. For instance, about the year 154 BC, it was determined that magistrates should start the duties of their office on January 1 (Smith’s Dictionary: Consuls). However, the date could still be moved by the Senate.
January 1 became established more firmly as the new year during the time of Julius Caesar. He held both spiritual authority as Pontifex Maximus and political authority as the Dictator of Rome. He abolished the strict lunar calendar in favor of a solar-based reckoning of time. This is described by the second century historian Appian:
“Caesar likewise interrogated the Egyptians while he was there restoring Cleopatra to the throne, by which means he made many improvements among the peaceful arts for the Romans. He changed the calendar, which was still in disorder by reason of the intercalary months till then in use, for the Romans reckoned the year by the moon. Caesar changed it to the sun’s course, as the Egyptians reckoned it” (The Civil Wars, 2.154).
He created a new Calendar of 365 1/4 days (Ovid, Fasti, 3.155; Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1.14.3). This gave the sun a much more prominent role in determining important dates in the year. Thus, January 1, 45 BC began the first year of the Julian Calendar.
Macrobius put forth the idea that the new year may have been moved to this date to honor the god Janus, who had two faces. One face was said to look towards the past and the other towards the future (Saturnalia, 1.13.3). This god was thought by them to govern thresholds and doorways.
While the first of every month was important to the ancient Romans, January 1 became an especially festive time. We have an excerpt from Ovid below. In the first section, he describes some details about the day. He then transitions to a supposed conversation he had with Janus.
“See Janus comes, Germanicus, the herald of a lucky year to thee, and in my song takes precedence. Two-headed Janus, opener of the softly gliding year, thou who alone of the celestials dost behold thy back, O come propitious to the chiefs whose toil ensures peace to the fruitful earth, peace to the sea…Hail, happy day! and evermore return still happier, day worthy to be kept holy by a people the masters of the world…”
“Next I asked, ‘Why Janus, while I propitiate other divinities, do I bring incense and wine first of all to thee?’ Quoth he, ‘It is that through me, who guard the thresholds, you may have access to whatever gods you please’ ‘But why are glad words spoken on thy Calends? And why do we give and receive good wishes?’…
“…Then, leaning on the staff he bore in his right hand, the god replied: ‘Omens are wont,’ said he, ‘to wait upon beginnings. At the first word ye prick up anxious ears; from the first bird he sees the augur takes his cue. (On the first day) the temples and ears of the gods are open, the tongue utters no fruitless prayers, and words have weight.’ So Janus ended. I kept not silence long, but caught up his last words with my own: ‘What mean the gifts of dates and wrinkled figs.’ I said, ‘and honey glistering in the snow-white jar?’ ‘It is for the sake of the omen,’ said he, ‘that the event may answer to the flavor, and that the whole course of the year may be sweet, like its beginning.’ ‘I see’, said I ‘why sweets are given. But tell me, too, the reason for the gift of cash, that I may be sure of every point in thy festival.’ The god laughed, and ‘oh’, quoth he, ‘how little you know about the age you live in if you fancy that honey is sweeter than cash in hand! Why, even in Saturn’s reign I hardly saw a soul who did not in his heart find lucre sweet…’” (Fasti, 1.171-195).
Ovid explained that people exchanged good luck wishes, sweet foods were eaten, and gifts on the day. People gave careful thought to their activities because they wanted to have a good new year. They thought their behavior on that day set the tone for the rest of the year. Sacrifices and prayers were made to Janus.
The Kalends Continues
The Kalends of January continued to be an exciting celebration for polytheistic Romans for centuries into the future. As time went on, it appears that the New Year’s celebration garnered even greater attention in the Roman Empire. The celebration was quite riotous! Libanius, who lived from 314 to 394 AD, wrote about the widespread celebration of the Kalends of January in his day.
“The festival of the Kalends, is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend…Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow…. People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides … The highroads and footpaths are covered with whole processions of laden men and beasts … As the thousand flowers which burst forth everywhere are the adornment of Spring, so are the thousand presents poured out on all sides, the decorations of the Kalends feast. It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year…. The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, as far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom … Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands” (quoted from Miles, 168–9).
389 AD – In this year, Theodosius I, Valentinian II, and Arcadius passed a law requiring the following dates to be holidays and rest days in the Roman Empire: Sundays (called dies solis), January 1, the birthdays of Rome (April 21) and Constantinople (May 11), the fifteen Paschal days (seven days before and after Pascha), the birthdays of the Emperors, and the anniversary of their respective reigns (CT: 2.8.19). This law protected a mix of Roman Church days and pagan Roman days. We have an excerpt from this law below:
“1. We also set aside the kalends of January 1 (January 1) as a customary rest day. 2. To the aforementioned days we add the natal days of the greatest cities, Rome and Constantinople, to which the law ought to defer, since it also was born of them….” (Pharr, p 44).
In the time of Ovid, January 1st was still a business day. By the end of the fourth century, its popularity and celebration earned it a recognized place as a rest day in the empire. This contributed to its observance, popularity, and continuity.
Syncretism and Christian Resistance
Starting in the second century, Christianity was influenced by outside influences. Among them were a pull to mix Christian teachings with cultural influences around them. One way that this manifested was the celebrations Christians accepted.
In about 200 AD, an important Christian figure named Tertullian lamented that many Christians participated in Roman celebrations. They thought that doing so would keep the name of Jesus from being blasphemed by unbelievers. He wrote the following:
“But, however, the majority (of Christians) have by this time induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable if at any time they do what the heathen do, for fear ‘that the name be blasphemed’… the Saturnalia and New Year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented – presents come and go – New year’s gifts – games join their noise – banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself!” (On Idolatry, 10, 14).
As Tertullian pointed out, the ‘heathens’ did not accept Christian celebrations, so why should Christians accept theirs? Among the celebrations he mentioned was the January 1 New Year’s with its gifts, games, and banquets. This description matches that of Ovid.
Tertullian described a phenomenon that started in the second century called syncretism. In general, syncretism is the mixing of two religions. Starting in the second century, many outside movements began to taint Christianity. Mixing with Roman culture was one of them.
The trend to resist this syncretism lasted for centuries into the future. Other Christian writers who pushed back against this trend included Augustine, a well-known writer of the fourth/fifth centuries. He composed some sermons against Christians who celebrated January 1. We have an excerpt from one below:
“The pagan celebration of the New Year…And now, if the festival of the Gentiles which is taking place today in the joys of the world and the flesh, with the din of silly and disgraceful songs, with disgraceful junketing and dances, with the celebration of this false feast day—if the things the Gentiles are doing today do not meet with your approval, you will be gathered from among the Gentiles…”
“So if you believe something else, hope for something else, love something else, you must prove it by your life, demonstrate it by your actions. Are you going to join in the celebrations of good luck presents like a pagan, going to play at dice—and get yourself drunk? How in that case can you really believe something else, hope for something else, love something else? How can you have the honest face to say Save us, Lord our God, and gather us from among the Gentiles? You’re segregated from the Gentiles, you see, when you mix physically with the Gentiles, by a different style of life. And you can see how wide apart this segregation sets you, if only you act accordingly to prove it…”
“Separate yourselves from the heathen, and at the change of the year do the opposite of what they do. They give each other gifts; give ye alms instead. They sing worldly songs; read ye the word of God. They throng the theatre; come ye to church. They drink themselves drunken; do ye fast…” (Sermon 198; quoted from Hill, 73-75 and Schaff, 399).
Augustine clearly opposed the celebration of January 1. However, in another sermon he connected the day with the circumcision of Jesus, though no formal recognition was formed at that time (Sermon 196A). He provides what is likely the first reference to this concept because December 25 had only recently been added as the birth of Jesus; January 1 is eight days later.
As time passed, a series of Church Councils and sermons by Roman Church writers opposed the New Year’s celebrations. The idea of honoring Jesus’ circumcision on the day gained traction in some areas, but it did not seem to gain a large following.
567 AD – The second Council of Tours (France) was held in this year. In canon 17, it was ruled that all of December up until the 25th day should be observed as a fast (this was likely done to counter pagan celebration of the month). December 25 through January 6 was to be treated as a festival except three days, January 1-3. We have an excerpt from canon 17 below:
English: “December up until the birth of Christ, is all fasting. From the birth of Christ (Dec. 25) until the Epiphany (January 6) all days were considered for festivity. The exception are the three days to trample down Gentile customs, our fathers established a statute of private litanies on the Calends of January…” (translation is author’s from Mansi, 6:796).
It goes on to say that mass should be held on the eighth hour of January 1 in honor of the circumcision of Jesus. In this way, January 1 was gradually adapted as an important day in the Roman Church in some region. In canon 22, people were condemned for observing January 1 and other heathen behaviors such as offering meat to the dead and worshipping creation (Mansi, 9:803; Hefele, 4:393).
572 AD – Martin was the bishop of Braga in Portugal. He wrote a work called On the Correction of Peasants to curb the tide of syncretism that was prevalent in his district. He bewailed the paganism found among baptized Christians. He condemned the Kalends of January (sec. 10, 16). In his message, he railed against the various decorations, including wreaths, that were prevalent in these festivals and called them the work of the devil (sec. 16).
He denied that January 1 was the new year and called such claims a ‘fabrication’ (section 10). He also recorded one of the first rituals involving what we would now call the Yule log, where wine and grain were poured over a log (sec. 16). This was another practice he decried.
578 or 585 AD – The Council of Auxerre (France) was held in either 578 or 585. In canon 1, people were rebuked for imitating behaviors of the heathens on January 1. Among the practices condemned were dressing like cows, stags, and giving new year’s gifts (strenae). These habits were denounced as diabolical (Hefele, 4:410; Mansi, 9:911-912).
650 AD – A council was held in Rouen, France. In canon 13, anyone who imitated paganism on January 1 was pronounced cursed (Hefele, 4:469).
692 AD – The Council of Trullo banned the practice of the Kalends celebration (canon 62). This may have curbed its practice in the East because the Eastern Emperor was involved in this meeting. Despite this council, the practice continued in some areas. In the West, it remained more popular.
742 AD – In this year, the bishop Boniface wrote a letter to the newly elected pope Zacharias to inform him of disgraces in the German church. Bishops and deacons were committing fornication and drunkenness with the full knowledge of Roman authorities. Up to that time, they faced no consequences for these behaviors. Even worse, these individuals were being promoted to new positions within the church.
Boniface preached against these abuses. He also preached against paganism among the Franks/Germans, but in Rome these same deeds were allowed. He gave one such example. Crowds of people near the Church of Peter in Rome paraded the streets on January 1. They shouted, feasted, and celebrated the day in the manner of pagans. Women wore pagan amulets and bracelets on legs and forearms; they also sold them. He then quoted Galatians 4:10-11 in response to this report.
Boniface encouraged Zachariah to end these activities. We have a quote from the letter below: “Because the sensual and ignorant Allemanians, Bavarians, and Franks see that some of these abuses which we condemn are rife in Rome, they think that the priests there allow them, and on that account they reproach us and take bad example. They say that in Rome, near the church of St. Peter, they have seen throngs of people parading the streets at the beginning of January of each year [Latin: Kalend Januarii; Giles, p 104], shouting and singing songs in pagan fashion, loading tables with food and drink from morning till night, and that during that time no man is willing to lend his neighbor fire or tools or anything useful from his own house. They recount also that they have seen women wearing pagan amulets and bracelets on their arms and legs and offering them for sale. All such abuses witnessed by sensual and ignorant people bring reproach upon us here and frustrate our work of preaching and teaching. Of such matters the Apostle says reprovingly, ‘You have begun to observe special days and months, special seasons and years. I am anxious over you; has all the labour I have spent on you been useless’ (Gal. 4:10-11)…” (Boniface, Letter 49 to Pope Zacharias; Talbot, 101).
Later in the letter, Boniface later quoted Augustine in support of his stance. In his response, Zacharias gave Boniface the authority to deal with disobedient clergy. He acknowledged the surge in ungodly festivities in Rome and that they were trying to quell them. He encouraged Boniface to do the same.
743 AD – The Council of Rome, most likely in response to Boniface’s letter, issued canon 9 which forbade anyone from celebrating January 1 or brumalia, especially because of pagan rituals. (Mansi, 12:384; Landon, 2:96-97).
January 1 Becomes the New Year
Despite these councils, the kalends celebration continued in some areas. During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, different countries and regions in Europe held different views of the new year. The continent was very fragmented during this time; this situation that probably contributed to varying views on this subject.
Among the days that were viewed as the new year: March 25, December 25, and Easter. It seems that from the sixteenth century onward many countries began to observe January 1 as the new year. Below, we have a chart displaying the year when some countries accepted this change (taken from Bond, pp 91-101).
England and Ireland – 1725 (previously March 25)
Denmark – 1559
France – The country we call France today was divided into various regions and thus views of the new year. They gradually accepted January 1 from the 11th through the sixteenth century.
Germany – 1544 (previously Dec. 25)
Italy – The country we call Italy today was divided into various regions and thus views of the new year. These regions mostly accepted Jan. 1 in the 1500s; Florence held out until 1751.
Portugal – 1556
Russia – 1725
Scotland – 1600 (previously March 25)
Spain – 1556
Sweden – 1559
As trade expanded globally, other regions around the world began to accept January 1 as the New Year. Some countries recognize January 1, but still have a separate new year due to their
Starting in at least the third century, Christians began to join in with January 1 celebrations. However, Christian writers opposed this practice for centuries. As time passed, it became widely accepted in Europe and other places.
Today many people still celebrate January 1 without this knowledge. There was certainly a time when I did not know it either. It has helped me to realize the traditions I once held versus that which is found in the Scripture. I pray for everyone’s eyes to be opened to these vital truths. “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Bible Sabbath Association (www.biblesabbath.org)
Appian. The Civil Wars, 2.154. The Roman History of Appian of Alexandria. Translated by Horace White. Vol 2. The Civil Wars. London, 1899, pp 207-208.
Augustine, Sermon 198. The Works of Saint Augustine. Sermons. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by John E. Rotelle. New City Press: New Rochelle Press, NY. 1993. pp 73-75.
Bond, John J. Handy-Book of Rules and Tables for Verifying Dates within the Christian Era. 4th ed. London: George Bell & Sons. York Street. Covent Garden.
Boniface. Letters 50-51. Translated and edited by C.H. Talbot. The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany. London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954. pp 101-106. Latin: Giles, J.A. ed. Sancti Bonifacii Archiepiscopi Et Martyris. Vol. 1. London, 1845, pp 104, 111.
Codex Theodosianus. 2.8.19. Pharr, Clyde, Trans. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton University, 1952. p 44.
Council of Auxerre. 578 or 585 AD. Canon 1. Hefele, vol 4:410. Mansi, Joannes Dominicus. Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova Et Amplissima Collectio. Vol 9:535-590 AD. Florentiae, 1763, pp 911-912.
Council of Rome. 743 AD. Canon 9. Mansi, Joannes Dominicus. Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova Et Amplissima Collectio. Vol 12:687-787 AD. Florentiae, 1765, p 384 and Landon: 2:96-97.
Council of Rouen. 650 AD. Canon 13. Hefele, 4:469.
Council of Tours. 567 AD. Canons 17 and 22. Mansi, 9:796, 803; Hefele 4:393.
Council of Trullo (also called Quinisext). 692 AD. Canon 62. Hefele, 5:232.
Libanius. Quoted from: Miles, C. Christmas in ritual and tradition, Christian and Pagan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912. pp 168–9.
Macrobius. Saturnalia, 1.12.38-1.14.4. Translated and edited by Robert A Kaster. Macrobius. Saturnalia. Books 1-2. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2011, pp 155-169.
Martin of Braga. 520-580 AD. Bishop of Braga. On the Correction of Peasants, 9-18. Translated by David Herlihy. Medieval Culture and Society. New York, Harper Collins, 1968, pp 33-42.
Ovid. Fasti, 1.27-30, 63-195, 3.99-100, 120-122, 160-166. Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Ovid’s Fasti. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1959, pp 5, 7-15, 127-128, 133.
Plutarch. The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 59. Translated by Aubrey Steward and George Long. Plutarch’s Lives of Alexander and Caesar. London, G Bell & Sons, LTD, 1913, pp 448-449.
Smith, William, Wayte, William, and Marindin, G.E. eds. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1890. Articles: Calendarium, Consuls, Hilaria, Feriae, Nundinae, Sacra, Saturnalia, Strenae. Vol 1: pp 336-346, 532-537, 836-839, 961-962. Vol 2: 251-252, 599-601, 578, 720.
Tertullian. On Idolatry, 10, 13-14. Translated by Rev. S. Thelwall. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3. Edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New York, 1918. pp 66-70.