As the oldest holiday that’s still celebrated, New Year’s Day has a long and fascinating history that’s rarely talked about. For thousands of years, cultures all over the world have celebrated the new year as a time of renewal, and they probably always will. Since the current New Year’s Day of January 1st is of Roman origin, Rome is a good place to start this historical review.
Approximately a century before the end of the Roman Republic, Rome’s New Year’s Day was March 1st. This is probably due to the fact that the spring equinox is in March, and in Rome as in many other cultures, the new year began in spring.
In 153 B.C., Rome officially changed its New Year’s Day to January 1st. This was the beginning of the Roman civil year and the day on which Roman consuls began their terms of office. New Year’s Day may already have been celebrated on January 1st unofficially for some time.
Less than a century after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., the Christian church decided to move New Year’s Day to stop the pagan celebrations that were still associated with January 1st. Depending on the location, New Year’s Day was celebrated on either March 1st, March 25th, Easter or Christmas. This continued for more than 1,000 years until 1582 when the Gregorian calendar moved New Year’s Day back to January 1st.
Interestingly, after 1582 when much of Europe was celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1st, Britain and America continued to celebrate the holiday in March. Not for another 170 years did the British Empire begin to use the Gregorian calendar. Americans celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1st for the first time in 1752 or 1753.
While Americans no longer exchange gifts on New Year’s Day as the ancient Romans did, the holiday is still celebrated, and an important part of celebrating is knowing not only why you’re celebrating but also why you’re celebrating at a particular time of year.
Happy New Year!