Whence Cometh the New Year Marking

“The prevailing custom or ceremony of wishing a happy New-Year is of ancient date, and probably took its rise from the Romans.” The Essex Almanac, January 1, 1772, Salem, MA

Marking the commencement of a New-Year appears to have begun as far back as Babylon some 4,000 years ago. Ancient Egypt (30 BCE) heralded the event on 29 August to coincide with the flooding of the Nile River, position of the sun and agrarian considerations. The Egyptians also symbolized the new year in the form of a human baby. Over the centuries for various reasons – religious, superstitious, secular, natural – nations and peoples have marked the arrival of another year on such dates as 1 January, 1 March, 25 March, 1 November and 25 December.

By 46 BC, Emperor Julius Caesar concluded that the calendar in use was a disaster and thus constructed a new one, setting the start of each new year on 25 March. So followed the Roman world that was much of the known world at the time. Several Catholic Church governing councils would in later years confirm this date citing its closeness to the vernal equinox (spring and rebirth of nature) and it being the Feast Day of the Annunciation (angel appeared and informed Mary that she would bear the Christ child), nine months from the birth of Jesus.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided that the human Julian calendar was out of rhythm with nature and its world. His Holiness created the socalled Gregorian calendar that established the first day of each new year as 1 January, the Feast of the Circumcision and the Feast of Mary.

Protestant nations such as England viewed these changes with skepticism or as just another Papist plot and hence maintained 25 March as New Year’s Day. Yet in the British Isles, the Celts long had observed 1 November – Feast of Samhain (summer’s end) – as the start of the next year. They celebrated with large gatherings, banquets, burning of the bones of slaughtered animals on a grand fire (bone or bonfire), music and enjoyment. Still, it was a somber time when the spirits returned to earth and children dressed as such to trick their elders. This day of respect for the dead, family closeness and child-centered activities caught on with the Catholic Church that recognized its importance and hence made 1 November “All Saints’ Day” and the prior day became “Hallow E’ne”.

Like the English, many French citizens chose to continue marking the new year on 25 March and were roundly criticized, harassed and ridiculed, often having jokes played on them or being sent on a “fool’s errand”. Traditionally the celebrating would last from 25 March to 1 April, and thus the latter day became a focal point for mischief toward the traditionalists.

When Massachusetts and Concord were settled in the 17th Century, their Puritan founders disdained the observing of New Year’s Day for the same reasons that Christmas was unacceptable – a Papist concept, over indulgence, pagan in origin, no historic or biblical support, minimal devotional connection. Still, the populist view was to maintain tradition and mark 25 March as the new year start. Interestingly enough, the native Algonquian people also beheld the arrival of subsequent years in March on the day of the “worm moon” with its connection to the vernal equinox, beginning of Spring and rebirth of nature. If not a religious connection, at least a spiritual one existed.

Righteous Puritans avoided the revelry and were aghast at the rowdy, excessive New Year’s celebrations observed in other colonies such as New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. There, “mummers” disguised themselves and roamed in groups seeking beverage and food and often the young, servants and sometimes Negroes went tavern to tavern, house to house wishing all a happy new year and expecting to be refreshed with eats and drink (England’s wassail – “be healthy” – tradition). Why even “pistells and gunns” were fired into the air at length causing New York City to ban such demonstrations on 30 December 1675.

Both in England and Massachusetts, while the law related to new year’s day marking was one thing, popular observance was another and by about 1690 most individuals, institutions and newspapers celebrated on 1 January. This resulted in January, February and March dates being listed for example as 1692/3 (old and new; 25 March and 1 January as the new year).

But stoic and pious, the Puritans and their Congregationalist churches viewed the start of a new year (whichever date was used) as a time for reflection on the past twelve months, a day to meditate and promise amends for the future. Even the Romans followed celebratory excesses with resolutions to purge the bad and become better Christians. In New England during the years 1722- 3 Rev. Jonathan Edwards penned 70 resolves for an improved new year and life. Like other citizens, he expected self-examination, ridding self of sin to improve the future, treating everyone with charity and promising to live better through Christ. This approach to welcoming another year became part of the Puritan’s devotional, low-key marking of the New Year. In the words of one Bostonian on 24 March, “This is the last day of the year and I am sensible a great deal hath been lost and misspent.”

Finally on 2 September 1752, England’s Parliament in its wisdom saw the light and adopted (along with her colonies) the Gregorian calendar and thusly 1 January as the first day of the new year. This caused 3 September to become 14 September as a means of correcting the Julian errors. Massachusetts and Concord made the adjustment and transition with little fanfare, for the most part keeping celebration to a minimum if at all.

Mostly secular and little religious, New Year’s Day did continue in the Puritan tradition as a focal point of devotional experience. Particularly, one reflected upon the shortness and uncertainty of life, the need to improve self and increase piety. Concord’s minister Rev. William Emerson (ordained on 1 January 1766) noted in his diaries the specific scripture reading to which he addressed his sermons on the New Year: 1767 “prayed for success of the Gospel in this place” (Concord); 1768 “Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die…”; 1769 “This year thou shalt die…”; 1775 (eve of revolution) “That there should be time no longer…”. With the war begun, no special mention of New Year’s Day was made in 1776. Many thought the Puritans brought a morbid pall to the marking of a new year’s arrival.

The wishing of” happy new year” would take on new meaning in 1783 as the new American republic emerged looking for national identity and new traditions as it moved to the future. While the old “Night Watch” activities of the 1770s continued in many places with prayer services, midnight bell ringing and exchanges of wellwishes, the raucous, merry-making, excess of drink and food would also take hold into the new century, then another and still another. But always the reminder that the old year was gone forever (represented by Father Time) and a new one arrived (Baby New Year) akin to the end of life and a new existence. Every day brought us closer to “the end of things of time and sense”.

New Year’s traditions have come and gone, some ancient, some original but like the marking of a new life or rebirth in Spring, the new always calls promising another chance and reminding us to look at the past all the while pressing to the future. Hence did cometh the New Year marking.

“But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
That I should go and you should not,
Good night and joy be with you all.”

(From The Parting Glass [tune @1675; broadside 1770], a pre-Auld Lange Syne popular parting song in England and the colonies.)

“I wish you a good year and Paradise at the end of your days!”

• From The Parting Glass [tune @1675; broadside 1770], a pre-Auld Lange Syne popular parting song in England and the colonies.)

Author Bio

Donald L. Hafner is Drum Major of the Lincoln Minute Men. When he is not serving as a fifer in the ranks of the Minute Men, he is a Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His scholarly work has been principally in the fields of arms control and U.S. foreign policy.

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