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 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 2020. But why is December 31 New Year’s Eve? And why is the next year the number 2020?
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 2020 because it follows 2019, you big dummy—so what the deuce are you talking about?”
Well, okay (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, 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. Caesar 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 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. 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 fourth-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’m not sure, 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. I think the term was imported from Eastern Europe, where the term is still used for that purpose in some places.)
But already by that time, as I have suggested, January 1 was not New Year’s Day 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 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.
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!