There are historical reasons why we celebrate New Year on the first day of January. And when I say ‘we’, I am reminded that other cultures celebrate their New Year at different times, but, if for no other than commercial reasons, the Western way of marking the New Year on January 1 has been adopted around the world.
Marking significant times throughout the year has almost invariably been connected with the agricultural year. Beginnings and endings tend to coincide with the annual rhythm of sowing and reaping, planting and harvesting. In the pre-Christian Celtic world, Samhain marked the end of the old and the beginning of the New Year.
Christianity, adopting and adapting so much from the existing cultures into which it moved, ‘christened’ Samhain and November 1 as All Souls and All Saints, thus preserving some of the old numinous feeling about this time of the year, while also linking it to the liturgical calendar.
Indeed, if there is an explanation for why we celebrate the New Year when we do, it is because of the Romans. In fact, it is from the Romans that we have the calendar itself, with its 12 months starting with January, and honouring Roman heroes and gods, such as Julius Caesar (July ), Augustus Caesar (August ), and the war god, Mars (March ). As the Roman Empire became Christian under Constantine, so the Church – Roman in organisation still – simply took over the Roman way of reckoning times and seasons.
Janus was the god of door and gate (ianua ). Like a door, he faced both ways, and is depicted in sculpture as a double-faced man. More generally, he controlled beginnings, most notably the first month of the year. In public prayers, Janus was named first, and was linked with the elaborate symbolism of gates at the beginning and end of military campaigns. One of the most important of these ceremonies was the ritual of closing the gate of Janus Geminus (double-headed Janus ) in the Roman Forum in times of peace. This ritual was performed three times during the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, and the Church was later to see a divine significance in this, as it was during the reign of this emperor that Christ was born.
The symbolism of Janus has lent itself easily not only to the celebrations of the new year, but also as an aid and spur to the reflections, the ruminations, that almost inevitably occur at this momentous time of endings and new beginnings.
And to my mind, no one has ever written so wisely or so well on the true significance of New Year as Charles Lamb, in one of his wonderful Essays of Elia called, simply, ‘New Year’s Eve’.
“Everyman hath two birth-days; two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.”
Lamb’s gentle melancholy is leavened with his whimsical humour, so that sometimes profound remarks are balanced with witty observations. It is, as a tribute to this bard of Janus, my intention to simply let Lamb tell us of the wonder and mystery of New Year –
“Of all sounds of all bell -- (bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven ) -- most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed
I saw the skirts of the departing Year.”
May I wish my readers a very happy New Year and all the blessings that may go with such a heart-felt wish. And we shall meet again once the New Year turns and we begin again our next twelvemonth pilgrimage.