It’s one thing to be a Jew on Christmas in a majority-Christian land like the United States, a meme made famous (infamous?) by recent cultural creations stretching all the way from Adam Sandler to South Park. But it’s another to be a Jew on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That meme isn’t famous at all. Yet.
Now, as everyone knows, the evening of December 31 is New Year’s Eve. And that’s right, if one reckons by the common calendar, used pretty much worldwide these days thanks to the antique successes of European imperialism, in which this coming year is 2013. But why is December 31 the eve of the new year? How did it get to be that way?
If you’re like most normal, sensible, historically oblivious Americans or Europeans, or most others who live in a majority-Christian society, this question simply does not come up. It’s New Year’s Eve on December 31 because it is and always has been, and the year ahead is 2013 because it follows 2012, dummy—so what in earth are you talking about?
A moment’s reflection, however, can convince even the densest person, sober or not, that, no, it hasn’t always been this way—“always” being a pretty long time when pointed backwards as well as forwards. Here is a very short history of the matter.
In 46 or 45 BCE, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar established January 1 as New Year’s Day even as he introduced a new calendar that was far more accurate than the one Rome had been using up to that point. The old calendar had only 304 days, divided among only ten months. Not good if you want to concord solar and lunar cycles and have years that are roughly symmetrical astronomically from one to the next. Ceasar named January after the Roman god of doors and gates, Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and one looking backward. This was a terrific idea.
Unfortunately, Caesar celebrated the first New Year by ordering a major attack on Jewish insurgent forces in the Galilee. Blood flowed in what then passed for streets. Some time later, Roman pagans began marking December 31 with drunken orgies. They apparently thought this constituted a re-enactment of the chaotic void that existed before the gods brought order to the cosmos. Even way back then, people would take any excuse to booze it up and screw someone whose name wasn’t particularly important at the time.
But December 31/January 1 did not remain the start of the year for long. (And never mind for now how the Romans numbered their years. Ceasar obviously didn’t think it was 46 BCE in 46 BCE!) As Christianity spread, and then became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (Constantine had allowed the toleration of Christianity in 313, but it was left to Emperor Theodosius to do the deed for which Constantine is often credited), pagan holidays were either incorporated into the Christian calendar or abandoned. In the case of January 1, it very conveniently became the Festival of the Circumcision. Yes, that’s right, if you count inclusively from December 25 to January 1 you get eight, as in the eight days of circumcision. That was painfully obvious to 4th-century Christians.
January 1 thus became an important day in early Christianity, but not as New Year’s Day. The Festival of the Circumcision came to symbolize the triumphal rise and reign of Christianity and the would-be death of Judaism—the supersession of the Church over the Jews as God’s chosen. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, this interpretation was standard fare, and it seems to have been formally ratified theologically at that Council.
Now, it so happens that the Pope at the time, whose name was Sylvester, convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, too, Sylvester promulgated a host of new anti-Semitic legislation. Not surprisingly, Sylvester became a saint in the Church for this and other achievements, and his Saint’s Day is (you guessed it) December 31. That’s why Israelis today call the secular New Year’s Eve revelries and New Year’s Day (since Jews mark the beginning of a day at sunset) “Sylvester.” Why they do this I don’t know, since Sylvester was sort of an ass from a Jewish point of view, and since over the centuries in medieval Europe the night of December 31 was often enough reserved for synagogue and Hebrew book burnings, tortures and standard-issue murder-for-sport.
But already by that time, as I have suggested, January 1 was not New Year anymore. It was still associated with pagan Rome, and Christians wanted to separate themselves from that image. Most of Christian Europe regarded March 25, Annunciation Day, as the beginning of the year. That made sense, too, because it was near the vernal equinox, the new year for many of the European tribes the Church sought to convert. The one exception worth noting, starting in the 11th century, was England.
William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on December 25, 1066, and at that time (his transition team was very efficient) he decreed that January 1 should once again be the New Year. He thus ensured that, with Jesus’ birthday aligning with his coronation, Jesus’ circumcision would start the new year and symbolize the supersession of the Normans over the earlier inhabitants of Britain. He tried, in other words, to make the calendar of Christian Norman England align with his personal biography.
This was very clever, but William’s innovation eventually lost favor. England’s Catholic clergy realigned English custom to fit the rest of the Christian West. March 25 it was to mark the new year, and there it remained for roughly half a millennium.
Then, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII moved it back to January 1. Like Caesar, the occasion was the introduction of a new calendar, the “Gregorian” one used today. The problem with the Julian calendar, as is well known, is that its slight inaccuracy caused Easter to creep too far back from the vernal equinox at the rate of about one day per century. That creep had amounted to 14 days by the time Gregory XIII became Pope, really screwing up the religious calendar. The Pope based his new calendar on the day, 1,257 years earlier, when Council of Nicaea convened on the vernal equinox: March 21, 325. Otherwise, the vernal equinox would have fallen in 1582 on March 11, way off from where the sun and stars were supposed to be for an equinox. He kicked the calendar ahead ten days, turning the day after October 4, 1582 into October 15, 1582. January 1 again became the new year.
Except in England and, by extension, its American colonies. The English resisted the change, not because they were still ticked at William the Conqueror’s vanity, but for reasons having to do with the Reformation and resisting the Pope’s authority and all that. The Gregorian calendar did not win adoption in England and in America until 1752, and oh what a mess that caused. To get the math to work out, 1751 consisted of only 282 days, from March 25 to December 31. The year 1752 began on January 1, but January 1 had to be advanced 11 days to catch up the Gregorian count, so 1752 had only 355 days. I’m sure this is the origin of wild drunkenness in Britain and America on New Year’s Eve. How else was a typical person to cope with such disturbing stuff? (This explanation does not apply to the Irish.)
What does this have to do with the Jews? Well, back on New Year’s Day 1577 Pope Gregory had decreed that all Roman Jews had to attend a Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services. The penalty for skipping out was death. Then, on New Year’s Day the next year the Pope signed a law forcing Jews to pay for a “House of Conversion” whose purpose was to convert Jews to Christianity. The sermons and the House did not work so well, however, so on New Year’s 1581 he confiscated all of the Roman Jewish community’s Hebrew books. That caused a lot of violence; the Jews took it in the neck, as usual, when, virtually unarmed, they faced a vastly superior military force.
Does any of this matter anymore? Very few Jews know this history, whether they live in Israel, America or anywhere else. Very few non-Jews in the West associate New Year’s Eve and January 1 with Pope Sylvester or with the Festival of the Circumcision. Indeed, the whole shebang is presumed to be secular in nature, having nothing to do with any church calendar (Catholic and Anglican, anyway) going back some 1,680 years. Except that it very much does. Besides, if New Year’s Eve and January 1 as New Year’s Day really were secular in origin, then they could not be much older than a few centuries—which would contradict the “always” premise, would it not?
So I guess it comes down to this: If you join in the revelry of New Year’s Eve, you can do it because of Julius Caesar and the gods turning chaos to cosmos (perfect for pagans), you can do it in memory of Pope Sylvester (perfect for anti-Semites), you can do it to commemorate William the Conqueror (perfect for Anglophiles), you can do it to mark the advent of Pope Gregory’s calendar (perfect for math/science types), you can do it to celebrate Jesus’s bris (my personal favorite), or you can do it just because it’s a convenient pretext to get hammered (everyone else’s favorite, judging by all appearances). So Happy New Year…whatever your reasons.
And next in this series…yes, you guessed it, the origins of Groundhogs Day!