That is what today is all about, for sure. But should it be? I am, of course, not questioning that today should be about beginnings because clearly the start of a new year screams renewal. The question I propose is, should it be today? Should the new year begin on Jan. 1?
The answer is obviously no.
Grab your best hangover cure and let me explain.
The first celebration of the new year began some 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and the Middle East has been at war ever since, though it is possible the two events are unrelated. These celebrations were always held around the vernal equinox, which makes complete sense. That is because we all know spring is really a time of renewal and new beginnings. Not the dead of winter.
The Roman calendar (because Rome is the measure of all things great) began the new year on May 1 until about 222 BC, when it changed to March 15. In 153 BC, the Romans informally began marking it on Jan. 1 because that is when the civil year began and when Roman consuls usually began their one-year terms.
It wasn’t until Julius Caesar undertook the task of reforming the calender that the official new year was moved from March 15 to Jan. 1. Of course, his calendar was seriously flawed, and he was assassinated a year later (ironically on March 15), though it is possible the two events are unrelated. He was, by the way, deified on Jan. 1, 42 BC.
Anyway, to begin the transition from the Numan calendar to the Julian calendar, Caesar added a bunch of leap days so the year 46 BC had 445 days and was appropriately named the year of confusion (or annus confusionis in the much-cooler Latin). That was also the year Cato the Younger killed himself, though it is possible the two events are unrelated. The word on the street was that Cato, a staunch champion of republican principles, couldn’t stomach the thought of living under Caesar’s rule (I am not making this up), a feeling many Democrats sympathize with today.
As a side note, and an indication of his resolve, Cato tried to stab himself with his sword but failed because of an injured hand. When the physician found him with his bowels hanging out, he went to put them back in and sew up the wound. Cato, who was pretty smart, figured out what the doctor intended. He pushed him away and then proceeded to yank out his bowels until he died. It is also possible Cato did not have the denarii to cover the co-pay.
But I digress.
After the fall of Rome, the church and the rest of Europe returned to the commonsense idea of celebrating the new year near spring, usually around the equinox or at some Christian holiday such as the Feast of the Annunciation. When Dionysius Exiguus introduced the Anno Domini system of dating in AD 525, he set the new year as March 25, which is the traditional date for the Feast of the Annunciation.
Still, there was no consensus or consistency when the new year was celebrated between the fall of Rome and the 16th century adoption of the Gregorian calendar, and this period came to be known erroneously as the Dark Ages, though it is possible the two events are unrelated. Dates used in various countries included Jan. 1, March 1, March 25, Easter, Sept. 1 and Dec. 25.
In 1085, during the reign of Pope Gregory VII (who was not the Gregory of Gregorian calendar fame), the new-year celebration coalesced around March 25 through most of the Christian world, where it remained until Pope Gregory XIII (who was the Gregory of Gregorian calendar fame) junked the Julian calendar in 1582 for one that was significantly more accurate and corrected a 0.002 percent error in the length of the year (it was an important 0.002 percent, for sure). He would die of old age three years later, though it is possible the two events are unrelated.
As a side note, before he became the Vicar of Christ on Earth and the creator of our calendar, Ugo Boncompagni was a law professor and one of his students was St. Charles Borromeo, for whom a Lima Catholic church is named. That one lawyer would become pope and another a saint is a mystery for the ages.
While the Gregorian calendar did not dictate a Jan. 1 new year, it was implied, and many nations unfortunately had already begun to make the shift to Jan. 1.
England, under Queen Elizabeth I, and its American colonies, however, had rejected the Gregorian calendar as being too papist and continued to use the Julian calendar until 1752, at which point we began celebrating the new year on Jan. 1.
Though if we had continued to use the Julian calendar, today would be Dec. 19, which would render this argument even more moot.
The point is that marking the new year in March as spring nears is a better time for celebrating new beginnings. And we can save ourselves from the dietary harikari and the corresponding exhausting whirlwind of activity that comes from holding Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations within a week of each other. Besides, technically speaking, Christmas does not end until Jan. 5 in a period known as Twelvetide, or the 12 Days of Christmas. Do we really need overlapping holidays?
If you still wish to party on Jan. 1, there is historical precedent for doing so without the new-year connotations.
Since Roman times, Jan. 1 was always a day of celebration, which often included killing bulls for Jupiter (not so much fun for the bulls) and several days of gift-giving. The church, as it is wont to do, absconded with the day and made it the solemn Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. That, however, did not stop the Medieval Europeans from their libational behavior.
Even though they celebrated the new year in March, the Medieval Feast of the Fools was often held on or near Jan. 1. Perhaps we can have a modern-day Feast of Fools. Descriptions of Feast of Fools celebrations recorded disapprovingly by the theologians at the University of Paris sound downright bawdy and often included “infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” If that won’t convince you, nothing will. By the way, some time after the theologians penned their description, they all died, though it is possible the two events are unrelated.
Have a safe and happy new year, regardless of when you celebrate it.
Thomas J. Lucente Jr. is an attorney with the Hearn Law Office in Wapakoneta (419-738-8171) and night editor of The Lima News. Reach him by telephone at 567-242-0398, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @ThomasLucente.