NEW YEAR'S DAY, the first day of the year. In the Gregorian calendar this date occurs twelve days earlier than in the Julian; thus in Russia, Greece, &c., where the latter is still employed, New Year's Day is celebrated on the English 13th of January.
The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians began their year at the autumnal equinox (Sept. 21) and the Greeks until the 5th century B.C. at the winter solstice (Dec. 21). In 432 B.C. the latter altered their New Year's Day to the 21st of June. The ancient Romans celebrated the beginning of the year on the 21st of December, but Caesar by the adoption of the Julian calendar postponed it to the ist of January. The Jews have always reckoned their civil year from the first day of the month of Tishri (Sept. 6-Oct. 5), but their ecclesiastical year begins at the spring equinox (March 21). The 25th of March was the usual date among most Christian peoples in early medieval days. In Anglo-Saxon England, however, the 25th of December was New Year's Day. At the Norman Conquest owing, it is believed, to the coincidence of his coronation being arranged for that date, William the Conqueror ordered that the year should start on the ist of January. But later England began her year with the rest of Christendom on the 25th of March. The Gregorian calendar (1582), which restored the 1st of January to its position as New Year's Day, was accepted by all Catholic countries at once; by Germany, Denmark and Sweden about 1700, but not until 1751 by England.
The Romans, after the adoption of the Julian calendar, kept the ist of January as a general holiday. Sacrifices were made to Janus; gifts and visits were exchanged, and masquerading and feasting were general. Congratulatory presents were made to the magistrates who entered upon office on this day. The emperors at the new year exacted from their subjects tribute of a pound of gold. This quasi-present was called strena, a term (extended to all New Year's gifts in Rome) traditionally derived from a custom initiated by the legendary King Tatius, to whom branches of vervain gathered in the sacred Grove of Strenua, the goddess of strength, were presented as a good omen on the first day of the year 747 B.C. The imperial strenae later became so excessive that Claudius found it necessary to limit the amount by formal decree.
Participation in the ordinary New Year's Day observances as well as in the Saturnalia of December was from the first discouraged by the Church. Christians were expected to spend the day in quiet meditation, reading of scripture and acts of charity. When about the 5th century the 25th of December had become a fixed festival commemorative of the Nativity, the ist of January assumed a specially sacred character as the octave of Christmas Day and as the anniversary of the Circumcision. As such it still figures in the calendars of the various branches of the Eastern and Western Church, though only as a feast of subordinate importance. The first mention of it in Christian literature as a feast occurs in Canon 17 of a council which met at Tours in 567.
The custom of giving and receiving strenae for luck at the New Year survives in France (where New Year's Day is known as le jour d'etrennes) and the Continent generally. In England its place has been taken by the Christmas-gift. In Scotland, where New Year's Day is more generally observed than Christmas, the custom is still universal. The Persians celebrated the beginning of the year by exchanging presents of eggs. The Druids distributed as New Year's gifts branches of the sacred mistletoe. In Anglo-Saxon and Norman England New Year's gifts were common. According to Matthew Paris, Henry III. followed the Roman precedent by extorting New Year's gifts from his subjects. These in later reigns became voluntary but none the less obligatory on those who wished to stand well with the throne. The custom reached its climax in Tudor times. Wolsey one New Year gave Henry VIII. a gold cup valued at 117, 17s. 6d. in the coinage of that time. An MS. account is preserved of money gifts given to King Henry by all classes of his subjects on New Year's Day 1533. The total reached many thousands. Bishop Latimer, however, handed Henry instead of a purse a New Testament with a leaf doubled down at Hebrews xiii. 4, as apposite to the king's then impending marriage with Anne Boleyn. In Edward VI.'s time, if not earlier, it was usual for the sovereign to give "rewards" to those who presented New Year's gifts. Elizabeth is related to have been most conscientious in this regard. The custom of offering New Year's gifts to the sovereign became obsolete during the Commonwealth and was not revived at the Restoration.
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