It was my first New Year’s celebration in San Francisco, California. I’d long dreamed, back home in Charleston, South Carolina, that I would someday move to California and live the good life in sun, temperate climates and just a little bit of Melrose Place-like drama, and here I was. I had a bottle of champagne cooling. I had friends and my partner and some good music. I thought I was set. Suddenly I began craving “Hoppin’ Johns,” Collard Greens, and – even though I am a devout vegetarian – the smell of a baked ham. What was going on?
New Year’s celebrations can be traced back about 4000 years. For centuries, literally, mankind has fulfilled their need for renewal with pageantry and ritual and in the American South, where I come from. Most of that ritual takes the form of food. The aforementioned “Hoppin’ Johns” is a combination of white rice and black-eyed peas, available in some soul-food restaurants throughout the Bay Area. It typically contains a penny, the tradition being that the penny would bring you prosperity in the upcoming year. Similar to how the Japanese side of my family exchanges little red envelopes of crisp, fresh bills around January first, or how my Persian friends who do a similar thing in March.
I had always grown up around a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds; so, I’ve always been aware of the fact of different calendars. In fact, I still fondly remember sitting with friends trying to plan a going-away party, in 10th grade, with the Hebrew, Muslim and Christian calendars in front of us, trying to find a date on which everyone could eat all of the food we would have available. Of course that ended in a compromise, with our Jewish friend having to wait until sundown for chowdown, but we all had a good time, in any case. Even with all this multiculturalism – at least, I liked to think of myself as extremely cosmopolitan – I always assumed that New Year’s was one holiday we could all count on, and count on it being, for the most part, at the same time. Since then I have definitely grown up and have learned to deftly wish “Happy New Year” to my Wiccan/Pagan friends around Oct. 31st at the “Feast of Samhain (pronounced “sha-wen”);” my Jewish friends on “Rosh Hashana” (which is the first and second days of the month of Tishri, sometime in September); my Muslim friends on “Muharram” (which migrates through the calendar as the Muslim calendar is about 12 days shorter than the one we use); my Baha’i and Persian friends on “Noruz” (pronounced “Naw-rooz,” occurring at the Spring Equinox, around March 21st); and still have time to get some fireworks shows in.
A Dazzling Brief History of the Calendar
So, the question that rose, naturally, is “Why the heck do we celebrate New Year’s at all these different times?” In order to get an answer, it’s important to know the history of the Calendar we use. “Calendar” comes from the Latin “calendarium” meaning “account book” which comes from “calendae” which was the first day of the Roman month, when accounts were reckoned. The calendar, at that time, was controlled by priests who were able to add or remove days to extend or shorten the terms of politicians that they liked or disliked, or to stretch or increase coffers. Around 45 BCE, Julius Caesar “fixed” the calendar to put a stop to the havoc which had been wrought by the tampering the priests did on a regular basis. Unfortunately, his calendar – known as the “Julian Calendar,” was still off, so in the 16th century, Neopolitan Physician Aloysius Lilius introduced a new calculation which was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 CE. So, the calendar we use today is known as the “Gregorian Calendar,” or “The Christian Calendar.”
Caesar, when he instated the Julian calendar, decreed that the first of January would be known and celebrated as the start of the new year. Prior to the Julian Calendar, the Roman year started on March 1st, which was reckoned on the first day of Spring, following a completely unnumbered “Winter” period. It was ten months long. You may notice that the roots of the numbering are in the names of September, October, November and December. But, when it was recognized that there were too few days in the calendar, two months named January and February were inserted between December and March. Caesar’s decision to start the year on the first of January, rather than March, distanced his new calendrical system from the priests’ more malleable one.
The Julian calendar’s celebration of New Year’s on January 1st was abolished in Medieval Europe where the practice of celebrating New Year’s was considered pagan and unseemly. Instead, the Church viewed Christmas Day as the start of the year and, throughout Europe and the European colonies. The year was reckoned to start on either December 25th, March 1st or at the “Feast of the Annunciation” on March 25th. It was the Gregorian reform, mentioned above, which reestablished January 1st as New Year’s Day, but it did not, at first, apply to non-Catholic countries. For that reason, it wasn’t until about 1752 that Britain, and by extension, the American colonies, switched from March 1st to January 1st.
So, our celebration of the New Year on January 1st is rooted, somewhat, in a nose-thumbing to that ancient priestly calendar that was so imprecise. But what about the other calendrical traditions? Why do they celebrate the New Year when they do? I decided to delve into three specific calendars and see if some sort of conclusion arose from them.
First: the Persian calendar. Still in use as one of the three official calendars of Iran – the other two being the Islamic and Christian calendars – this calendar could be called “the Zoroastrian Calendar.” It consists of 12 months named for Zoroastrian angels, with the first day of the year falling on the first of Farvardin, which corresponds with the start of Spring. The month is named after the “Fravashi” which is a collection of “angels” meant to guard one whose “urvan” has been sent to the material world to fight in the battle of good and evil. In this way, the celebration of the New Year is also a celebration of the renewed fight between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainu who represent forces of good and evil, and light and dark respectively. It is fitting, then, that it start on the longest day of the year, when the forces of good and light, are seen as conquering the forces of evil and darkness. Traditionally, Noruz is celebrated with a 13 day long celebration, the last day of which is spent outside, and the setting of the “Sofre-ye Haft Sin” or “The Table of the Seven Seens” with seven items whose names begin with the Perso-Arabic letter “seen” and which all have a special meaning. Furthermore, this time sees the rebirth of the natural world with plants sprouting and crops beginning to show.
Second: the Jewish Calendar. The first thing to note about this calendar is that it is purely lunar, which means that there is a natural 11 day “drift” in its correlation to a Lunisolar calendar (for example, the Christian calendar). To correct this, a 19 year cycle was established in which the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th,17th and 19th years have 13 months instead of 12. This means that the first of Nisan, the first day of the Jewish year, drifts 11 days more into winter in years one, two and three before jumping a full month – 33 days – later for the start of year four. All this complication is really just to assure that the year start in Spring so that the celebration of Passover – referred to in the Bible as “Chag he-Aviv” or “Festival of the Spring” – will also occur in springtime. Important to note, however, is that while the first of Nissan is “technically” the first of the Hebrew year, since Nissan is the first month, it is not the day when the year’s number changes and, therefore, not when “Happy New Year” is said. That occurs on the “molad” (pronounced: moh-LAD) or “New Moon” of the month of Tishri (the seventh month of the year, generally occurring sometime in September or October), and corresponds to the time of the Harvest. The complexities of the Jewish calendar are great, indeed, and a fascinating area for future study, but suffice it to say that their year has two “New Year’s Days,” one in Spring, and one in Fall.
Finally, the Pagan calendar. Modern pagans, known as Wiccans, tend to follow either the conventional “Christian” calendar, or a reconstruction of what is known as “the Coligny Calendar” which is a 12 month lunisolar calendar, meaning it is based on both the lunar rotation from new to full and back to new, and the solar migration across the sky. The year begins at the Feast of Samhain, or the first of Samonios (the old Gaulic name for the month) which roughly corresponds to our modern Halloween. It was believed to be a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest and the memories of loved ones past were to be most cherished, a fitting air in which to start a new year. It also occurred on the new moon after the Autumnal Equinox – an equinox being one of the two days of the year when the day and night are roughly equal in length – which is known as “Mabon” in the neo-pagan traditions, but was called Alban Elued in the Mesodruidic tradition and is sometimes called “The Witch’s Thanksgiving” as it is a celebration of the completion of the second, and final, harvest. This New Year also falls on the new moon before Yule, the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the time of little. The celebration, then, falls between a time of plenty, and a time of hunger, and at a time when memory of the past is the most important, and yet it was the start of a new year cycle, making The Feast of Samhain a fascinating mixture of the dualities which the pagan, Druid-based religion sees as paramount.
So, What Does it All Mean?
There are hundreds of other calendars out there, that all stand as “account books” of the year for a wide variety of people. Each calendar celebrates its own New Year’s Day which, interestingly enough, always falls on the same day: the first day of the first month. As we, the followers of the Gregorian calendar, face the year ahead, it is important that we, like the Pagans, remember to think of those we’ve lost in the past year, and, like the Persians, celebrate the renewal inherent in each day. Regardless of tradition, regardless of whether it is early, late, or right on time, I wish each of you a “Happy New Year” in all of its varied meanings!
If you’re interested in exploring calendars, a good place to start is the Web. For the Persian Calendar, is a pretty good starting place, in that it will give you all the words you would need to Google to find out more. For the Jewish Calendar, provides some great introductory information, and there are more detailed discussions if you’d like them. For the neo-Pagan/Druidic Calendar, has some great information, but I recommend looking even further. These traditions were fairly well eradicated by the Holy Roman Empire so they will take some more research to get good, solid information.