Why is January 1 New Year’s Day?

By Dwight Longenecker Published on January 1, 2023

Every year we hear the old legend that Christmas is a pagan celebration — that the Christians adopted the Roman mid-winter feast Saturnalia or that they took over the pagan celebration of the birth of the Sun God. These theories have now been debunked thoroughly. Go here to see this myth dismantled.

While Christmas is not just some pagan celebration warmed up, there is another mid-winter celebration that definitely does have pagan roots — and that is New Year’s Day. But is that such a terrible thing? Are we supposed to root out all references to pagan gods in our society?

Talk About ‘Pagan!’

Christmas is not of pagan origin, but certain beloved Christmas traditions are. Things like mistletoe and Christmas trees, and while we’re sniffing out pagan traditions don’t forget Easter and Easter eggs.

Maybe Christmas trees and Easter eggs do have pagan origins, but if we are going to throw them out we must also reconsider other pagan leftovers in our culture. We’ll have to rename the days of the week because they 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).

The months of the year are also associated with pagan gods. The two-faced god Janus gave his name to January. Mars is honored in March, the goddess Maia is glorified by the month of May, and Juno is next. The whole calendar is “pagan!”

Celebrating the New Year

Furthermore, the idea of celebrating the New Year is pagan from the start. The earliest records of a New Year celebration are from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Then 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 10 months and also recognized March as the beginning of the year. Incidentally, this is why September, October, November and December have their names: from March (which was the beginning of the year) they were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months.

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The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius added January and February to the calendar, and in 153 BC we have the first record of January first being celebrated as New Year’s Day. This change was merely a legal, formal innovation. Most people still celebrated the New Year in mid-March.

When Julius Caesar replaced the old lunar based calendar in 46 BC with a solar calendar, he also reaffirmed the beginning of January as New Year’s Day. As the Empire fell, and Europe transitioned to Christianity, the vestiges of pagan culture were purged. New Year’s 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 variously at Christmas, Easter or most significantly March 25.

Happy New Year! March 25!

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 — count nine months from March 25 and you get December 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 should be celebrated as New Year’s Day. And so it was for a thousand years.

Then in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII tinkered with Julius Caesar’s ancient calendar. Because of imprecise calculations, the date of Easter had been drifting, so the pope decided it needed fixing. Part of the reform was to reestablish January first as New Year’s Day. Seeing this as papal presumption, the Eastern Orthodox Christians rejected the reform. Seeing this as not only papal presumption, but paganism restored, most Protestants also rejected the new Gregorian calendar. The British did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. The Greeks held out until 1923.

So if any mid-winter celebration is rooted in the pagan cultures it is New Year’s Day, not Christmas. If you want to a Christian celebration of not just a new calendar year, but the beginning of God’s redemption of the world and the new creation in Christ, then March 25 — the commemoration of the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb — is the place and time to be.

 

Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi and The Secret of the Bethlehem Shepherds. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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