By Dennis Leap
As a youth, I looked forward to celebrating New Year’s Eve. My parents would attend an adult party at their relatives, leaving one of my older sisters home to watch over my younger brother and me. Surrounded by colorful Christmas decorations and amply supplied with candy, chips, cookies and soda, it was tradition for us kids to sit up until midnight watching the ball drop at Times Square on television.
At the stroke of midnight, we would go outside to the front porch and take turns ringing a heavy cow bell—an old family heirloom that had been passed on to my mother. We always had great fun competing to see who could ring the bell the loudest and longest.
On New Year’s Day, I would go to church. In the ‘50s, the Catholic Church considered it to be a “holy day of obligation.” I remember the priest talking about New Year’s resolutions during the sermon. I would spend the afternoon thinking about what I needed to improve in my life. Our teachers would often ask us about our resolutions when we returned to school on January 2. As a boy, I never questioned all the celebration surrounding January 1. Everybody was doing it, so it seemed to be the right thing to do.
It wasn’t until I learned the truth about the origins of Christmas that I began to question whether I should celebrate New Year’s Day.
New Year’s: The Oldest Holiday
New Year’s is the oldest of all holidays and the most popular with all people living in modern times. The ancient Babylonians began keeping the festival nearly 4,000 years ago. The Babylonian calendar fixed the first day of the new moon following the spring equinox as the start of their year. Spiritual purification was the underlying reason for their New Year’s festival.
For 11 days, people underwent ritual purification, confronted evil, examined their transgressions and sought redemption. People desired to put an end to their old ways and find new beginnings. Held at the time of spring planting, New Year’s festivities were also an appeal to the gods to provide agricultural abundance. This is the ancient root of the New Year’s resolutions tradition.
As this pagan festival was passed down to succeeding generations, it changed in character and in customs. The Greeks held a not-so-religious New Year’s-type festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication, in late March. The early Romans imitated the Greeks and also held a New Year’s festival at the same time. The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and 304 days. Each new year began at the spring equinox.
A Man Changed Time
However, Numa Pompilius, a Roman king, added two months—Januarius and Februarius—to the beginning of the calendar. Over the centuries, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun. In 46 b.c., Julius Caesar corrected the problem with the help of astronomers and moved the new year to January 1. Caesar felt that since Janus was the Roman god of doors and gates, and he had two faces—one looking forward and one looking back—that the month named after him would be the perfect place to begin the new year. The Romans observed New Year’s by engaging in drunken orgies—a spiritual ritual they believed constituted a personal re-enacting of the chaotic world that existed before the cosmos was ordered by the gods. Sound familiar?
About 500 years later, Pope Gregory xiii abandoned the Julian calendar in 1582 because it also had flaws. The Julian calendar caused the seasons to slip about one day per century. By Gregory’s time, 14 days had slipped. Using mathematical calculations, he restored the calendar and kept the traditions of the Roman Empire by leaving January 1 as the beginning of the new year. The Gregorian calendar has been followed by our Western world ever since. Most people don’t consider that Roman Catholic Church established the beginning of our year in the middle of winter.
Not only does this world not know God’s calendar—it can’t agree on any calendar! The Chinese and Vietnamese celebrate a new year sometime between January 20 and February 20. The Sinhalese new year falls between April 13 and 14. The Malayalam calendar places the new year in mid-August. The Ethiopian new year is in mid-September. What confusion!
Yet, we do not have to be confused about the true calendar. God preserved the knowledge of it through the Jews, one of the tribes of Israel.