walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Published on: December 31, 2013
History Lesson
A Jew’s Guide to New Year’s Eve

As everyone knows, the evening of December 31 is New Year’s Eve. But why is December 31 New Year’s Eve? And why is the next year the number 2014?

It’s one thing to be a Jew on Christmas in a majority-Christian land like the United States, an incongruity made famous (infamous?) in recent pop culture all the way from Adam Sandler songs to South Park episodes. But it’s another to be a Jew on New Year’s Eve and Day. Pop culture offers nothing to help on that score. So what’s that about then?

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 virtually worldwide these days thanks to the antique successes of European imperialism. And the coming year is 2014. But why is December 31 New Year’s Eve? And why is the next year the number 2014?

If you’re like most normal, historically oblivious Americans, this question simply does not come up. If it ever does, the most popular answer is easy to predict: “It’s New Year’s Eve on December 31 because it just is and always has been, and the year ahead is 2014 because it follows 2013, you big dummy—so what the deuce are you talking about?”

Well, OK (and I’ve been called a lot worse). But just a moment’s reflection can convince even the densest person, sober or not, that, no, it hasn’t always been this way, “always” being a pretty darned long time when pointed backwards as well as forwards. Here’s 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, or 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.

Before long, Roman pagans began marking December 31 with drunken orgies. They rationalized their debauchery by claiming that it constituted a solemn re-enactment of the chaotic void (andrelomosia, in the original Greek) that existed before the gods brought order to the cosmos. Even way back then, people made up excuses to party hard and have sex with people whose names weren’t particularly important at the time. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.

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! To figure out how and why we’ll number the onrushing year 2014, you have to go back to a guy named the Venerable Bede in 8th century Britain, and we certainly don’t want to do that just in advance of party time, do we?) As Christianity spread, and then became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (Constantine 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 was incorporated, very conveniently becoming 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 people. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, this interpretation was standard fare, and 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. Sylvester became a saint in the Church for this and other achievements, and his Saint’s Day is (you guessed it) January 1. 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 really know, since Sylvester was sort of an ass from a Jewish point of view, and since in medieval Europe the night of December 31 was often reserved for synagogue and Hebrew book burnings, torture and standard-issue murder-for-sport.)

But already by that time, as I have suggested, January 1 was not New Year anymore. That connection was still associated with Caesar’s pagan Rome, and Christians wanted to separate themselves from that unenlightened, pre-Gospel, pre-Christian time. So Christian Europe regarded March 25, Annunciation Day, as the beginning of the year. That made sense 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 Saxon 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 in time realigned English custom to fit that of 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 eponymous 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 became Pope, really screwing up the religious calendar and the general sense of right-fittedness as well. You’ll be wanting lilies and daffodils blooming on Easter, not a foot of snow on the ground.

The Pope based his new calendar on the day, 1,257 years earlier, when the Council of Nicaea convened on the vernal equinox: March 21, 325. Otherwise, the vernal equinox in 1582 would have fallen 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, and January 1 again became the New Year.

Pope Gregory XIII chairs the commission for reforming the Julian calendar in 1582.

Pope Gregory XIII chairs the commission for reforming the Julian calendar in 1582.

Except in England and, by extension, in its 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 thinking it apposite to resist the Pope’s authority and all that. The Gregorian calendar did not win adoption in England, and hence in America, until 1752, and oh what a mess that caused. As one can learn from Ben Franklin’s Almanac of that time, 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 with the Gregorian count, so 1752 had only 355 days. I’m sure this is the origin of the wild drunkenness in Britain and America on New Year’s Eve. How else was a 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 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 of 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. Talk about adding insult to injury.

The House of Conversion did not work out so well for the Pope, however, so on New Year’s Day 1581 he ordered the confiscation of all the Roman Jewish community’s Hebrew scrolls and books. That caused a lot of violence; the Jews took it in the neck, as usual, when, virtually unarmed, they faced a vastly superior state-backed 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 United States and Canada associate New Year’s Eve and January 1 with Pope Sylvester or with the Festival of the Circumcision, or know that January 1 became New Year’s Day in British North America only in 1752. Indeed, the whole shebang is presumed by most Americans to be wholly secular in nature, having nothing to do with any church calendar (Catholic and Anglican, anyway) going back some 1,680 years. Well, duh: Did either Guy Lombardo or Dick Clark seem like a religious type to you?

Except that, as ought by now to be clear, New Year’s origins very much do go back to church calendars (and to pre-Christian religious rituals, as well). Besides, if New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day really were secular in origin, they could not be much older than a few centuries, in other words, not older than the notion of secularism itself. That sure contradicts the “always” premise, now doesn’t it?

I guess it comes down to this: If you join in the revelry of New Year’s Eve, you can do it for any number of historically appropriate reasons. 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 (just right for anti-Semites), you can do it to commemorate William the Conqueror (tailor-made for Anglophiles), you can do it to mark the advent of Pope Gregory’s much improved calendar (terrific for math/science/astronomy buffs), you can do it to celebrate Jesus’ 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, whatever your reasons, Happy New Year!

show comments
  • TommyTwo

    “Now, it so happens that the Pope at the time, whose name was Sylvester, convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem.”

    Plus ça change…

    “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 really know …”

    I figure that “New Year’s” is already taken.

    “in medieval Europe the night of December 31 was often reserved for synagogue and Hebrew book burnings, torture and standard-issue murder-for-sport.”

    “Sylvester promulgated a host of new anti-Semitic legislation.”

    And yet Tweety still survives.

  • ddh

    In most of the Catholic and Protestant areas of the former German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, New Year’s is called “Sylvester”–whether in German, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, or Slovenian.

    • amgarfinkle

      Right. I think the Jewish emigres to Palestine way back probably brought that with them.

      • Kavanna

        Yes, as a Chabad rabbi once explained to me.

        The Soviet state promoted New Year’s Day as a secular alternative to Christmas. That, and I think revolutionary France did something similar. That may be the origin of the idea that New Year’s Day is a secular holiday. Before the French Revolution, there were no secular holidays, at least not in the sense we think of. Certain national days were marked, but they weren’t yet holidays to displace religious days.

  • MRD1037

    Here is another twist.

    Russian (or at least Russian Jews) celebrate the New Year (Novi God) as a family holiday with a big meal and a non-Christmas Christmas tree. Apparently it was very popular non soviet but secular holiday in Soviet times. So now Russian Jews who emigrated in Israel want to celebrate a holiday with something that to non-Russian Israelis seems like a Christmas tree and Santa Claus. This leads to some cultural misunderstandings.

  • amoose1959

    Garfinkle again rallying the troops with his Christian bashing and kafkatrapping anti-semitism. He suffers from Jewcentric pathology.

    • TommyTwo

      [Feeding the troll.]

      Kafkatrapping: “A form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: ‘Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.'”

      Garfinkle, in the relevant context of Jews and New Year’s, discusses the incontrovertible anti-Semitism of the Church in the past. He explicitly states that this is not true for living persons.

      If anyone here is guily of kafkatrapping, it’s you.

      (Granted, Garfinkle can be read as casting aspersions on the very few who celebrate New Year’s in knowing memory of Sylvester. In which case, if you are so devout and wish to devote a day to an ancient figure, I would think it behooves you as a religiously serious person to consider his bad as well as good sides.)

      • amoose1959

        “Garfinkle, in the relevant context of Jews and New Year’s, discusses the incontrovertible anti-Semitism of the Church in the past.”
        Ah but like every good Jewish parent tells their kids ” don’t ever forget the past”
        Ya think that Garfinkle was trying to be a good Jewish parent?
        I like Garfinkle and have read some of his books -at least he recognizes Jewcentric pathology on both sides.
        In the meantime T T don’t forget to sniff under every rock.

  • Kavanna



    Many Americans live in predominantly Protestant parts of the country with few Catholics. Holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and New Year’s have lost all connection to their historical roots or to any religious meaning. That is true even in the most deeply religious parts of the nation. The history of each holiday is interesting, but nothing more.

    Mr. Garfinkle’s arguments do make more sense in regions with heavily Catholic populations.

  • mbermangorvine

    It’s a good thing the Council of Nicaea isn’t meeting today, or the Council of Europe would demand that it name January 1 “the Feast of the Violation of the Infant Jesus’ Rights to Bodily Integrity.”

  • PKCasimir

    Julius Caesar did not come up with the name for January. According to Roman tradition, Numa Pompilius, legendary King of Rome and successor to Romulus, reformed Romulus’ calendar and added January and February to it. Later, much earlier than Caesar, January 1st was chosen as the first day of the new year as it was the day that the new Roman consuls entered office. But, like most things in the old Roman Republic where politics were flexible, if anything, sometimes the year started on March 1st.

  • Blaton Hardey

    -In Israel, January 1st is not a holiday and it’s mostly the Russians (1 mio.) who celebrate New Year’s Eve (and fancy cosmopolitans in Tel Aviv and American and French olim and … ). For all I know, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th generation Israelis ignore the date (besides adding “happy new year” to professional emails to westerners).

    -“Sylvester” is the word for New Year’s Eve used in Germany, Russia, France, Italy, (and lots of other countries).. I assume new Immigrants to Israel took it from there and kept using this word because, well, that’s what you called it. Also, December 31 was the day of Pope Sylvester’s funeral (…according to several wikipedia pages, but then again, I mistrust wikipedia and it might also be the case that the clergy simply claimed that was the day of his funeral later on.)

    • ddh

      “Sylvester” and its variants are used in areas where German, Hungarian,
      Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, and sometimes French are spoken, but
      not so much among Russian speakers (канун нового года or eve of the new year) or Italian speakers (capodanno or head of the year–somewhat Hebrew-sounding, no?).

      For the Russian Orthodox, January 2 is the Feast Day of St. Sylvester, and
      the Soviets promoted New Year’s as a Christmas substitute. In italy,
      only the German- and Slovenian-speaking minorities call New Year’s Eve

      • Blaton Hardey

        I have no personal experience of what Russians, Italians or French call that holiday; I simply saw that the word “Sylvester” appeared in these languages’ respective wikipedia-pages on New Year’s Eve.
        Capodanno does not sound very Hebrew to my ears; I’d rather like to think the term comes from “Capo” (Head), “de” (of) and “anno” (year) which are Latin words. (Which are the origin of many modern day English words such as Capitol, capitalism and annual, capisce?)

        • ddh

          The Hebrew for New Year is Rosh haShonah, which means head of the year.

          • Blaton Hardey

            Oh, I see. Perhaps “head of the year” was an old Roman way to put it, and that formulation was used later on by rabbis who sought to fill the Hebrew vocabulary with new words and phrases, simply translating word for word: rosh haShana.

          • ddh

            This year is 5774 in the Hebrew calendar. I doubt the Jews waited 3700 years for the Romans to show up in Judea in 63 BCE before figuring out what to call the beginning of the Jewish year, which is an important religious holiday.

          • Blaton Hardey

            Maybe “head of the year” was a symbol spread throughout the Mediterranean area… Do you know other languages that use this imagery?

      • Blaton Hardey

        … On the subject of Soviet X-mas, perhaps you could give me some leads on where to read further? I would very much like to know what Soviet Christmas (Marxmas?) looked like.

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