Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering 'it will be happier'..."
― Alfred Tennyson
January is here, a month named after the two-faced god Janus; perhaps an appropriate deity for politicians, given their slippery nature over the last year with the Referendum.
The month was given the name by the Romans, who also instituted a calendar reform of 12 months, bumping up the months by the addition of January and February, making the Julian calendar which we largely use today. This meant that September – 7 – October -8 – November – 9 and December – 10, were all moved along, muddling the numeric values embedded in their names. Rome, of course, had a New Year on 1st January under the Julian calendar.
And we call it the New Year, and celebrate it. What is perhaps not so well known is that is relatively recent in origin in England. We don't know when the old Pagan calendars of the Celts and Anglo-Saxon years began. Some place the Celtic one on Samhain, and the Anglo-Saxon one at the Winter Solstice. But there was something there. As Ronald Hutton remarks:
"There is sufficient to argue strongly for the existence of a major pre-Christian festival marking the opening of the New Year, at the moment at which the sun had reached the winter solstice and its strength was being renewed. There is testimony to this in the Anglo-Saxon, the Viking, and the Welsh components of the medieval British heritage."
What is clear is that from around the late 12th century onwards, in England, until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the first day of the New Year was the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, also called "Lady Day". However, celebrations didn't take place then, but back on 1 January, much as across the rest of Europe. This was a Civic or Legal New Year rather than a folk-traditional one, and it in fact tied more back to the Roman calendar than Christian heritage, as starting a New Year in 25 March means that the months of September, October and December are numbered correctly.
Historian and Genealogists have to watch out for this. There's a good article at:
One of the common ways of writing the date combines what is "old style" year with "new style", and if it were still in place, this would mean that 1 January 2014 could be written 1 January 2013/2014! It only applied until 25 March, after which the two years ran together.
The Julian calendar placed an extra day every 4 years to account for leap years, but that meant a small disparity which grew over the centuries, and was amended in the Gregorian reform by only having a leap year every 4th century. The rule can be stated thus:
"Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 1900 is not a leap year; the year 2000 is a leap year."
By the time that England caught up with the reforms, the calendar was out by 11 days. Wednesday, 2 September 1752, was followed by Thursday, 14 September 1752. But that meant, of course, that the previous date of 1 January was out of synchronisation from much of the rest of Europe. A celebration on that date would have been 11 days after France and Italy had 1 January celebrations!
There's also a quirk of this reform which made its way into the UK tax system. Remember the legal New Year was 25 March – that was continued on the Julian calendar in 1753 which then (adjusting by the changed 11 days) now began on 5 April, which was the "Old Style" new tax year of 25 March. A 12th skipped Julian leap day in 1800 changed its start to 6 April, which is that today. So the accidental vagaries of New Year and Calendar Reform gave a completely odd looking date in the tax system!
The feast of the New Year was (and is) called in Scotland by the distinctive name of Hogmanay, also known in earlier centuries as 'hagmena' or several variants between the two. But it seems to be of more recent origin that might be suspected. The original Christmas was both secular and religious, but the Kirk stamped down very strongly against feasting and festivity. As Hutton notes:
"Once again after 1690 we come across cases of punishment of those who kept the festival, and members of the social élite were no longer immune; in 1703 the laird of Clackmannan was summoned by the local Kirk session for holding a feast in his house upon it."
The strength of the Kirk was such that Christmas, both as a religious festival and the secular trappings was virtually banned in Scotland for around 400 years, from the end of the 17th century to the 1950s. But a purely secular feast on another day was permitted, so as Hutton notes:
"the emotional requirement for a midwinter feast was met by transferring the revelry traditionally associated with Christmas to New Year's Eve and Day (long themselves, of course, festive occasions) which were less tainted by religious associations."
What happened was that the longer period of festivity – Yule – which lasted from the Winter Solstice until even the end of January in Scotland, became focused on the New Year.
And Hogmanay has evolved. As Bob Pegg, author of "The Little Book of Hogmanay" notes:
"If you speak to anyone from past generations brought up in Scotland until, say, the 1960s, they'll tell you emphatically that Hogmanay isn't what it used to be. Customs like cleaning out the house, first-footing, special food, visiting neighbours, offering hospitality which could include vast amounts of baking, have all declined enormously over just a few decades. I'm sure the television Hogmanay "experience", a bit of a second-hand thing, is partly responsible."
"But if you look at the history of Hogmanay, it's plain that it wasn't always celebrated in the same way — customs died out and were sometimes revived, or they were replaced by new fashions."
Which brings me to an apt quotation to end this piece:
"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice."
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
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