New Year has long been celebrated as a time for new beginnings, resolutions and fresh starts. Christmas traditions we recognise today had many of their origins in the early church that developed through the medieval period. But what about New Year? Here, even the date is wide open to debate during the Middle Ages.
Roman New Year
Various dates around the world are used to celebrate New Year. 1 January was the beginning of a New Year under the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The Roman Empire’s annual cycle used the date for a moment known as calends, a term that continues in use throughout the medieval period.
The calends was a name for the first day of each month, and the calends of January marked the beginning of a new political as well as calendar year. The Empire’s officials would take up their new offices from this date to serve throughout the year. So it really was about new beginnings.
January is named for Janus, the Roman God of beginnings, doorways, duality and various other things. Janus had two faces one looking forward and one looking back, so that January was always a time of transition, reflection and hope.
New Year gifts
During the medieval period, 1 January was considered much more of a gift giving event than Christmas Day. Saint Nicholas’s Day was still celebrated on 6 December and was reserved for giving presents to children.
Some records of the wealthy nobility record them giving themselves presents at New Year. Louis XV gave himself a beautiful sword. And in 1404, Philip, the bold Duke of Burgundy, bought himself a jewel-encrusted golden model ship. Before we judge them too harshly, it’s not that dissimilar to rushing out into the New Year sales now.
The next big one was Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, which falls on 5 January. This is the date now when all Christmas decorations should be taken down, or you have to leave them up all year to avoid bad luck. That’s because 5 January, Twelfth Night was the medieval end of the Christmas period. It was the date on which the Magi, the three wise men, had arrived to give their gifts to Jesus. So it was another date on which gift giving might be considered proper.
Twelfth Night would see more feasting and plenty of wassail to oil your wassailing. The forerunner of carol singing, wassailing was an ancient tradition of going door to door and singing in return for a cup of hot mulled and spiced cider called wassail.
So your medieval carol singers would have been more prevalent on Twelfth Night than in the run up to Christmas Day. It was a slightly cheeky way to get the lord of the manor to hand out more goodies without actually begging. Next time you sing We Wish You A Merry Christmas, think about the words and their resemblance to wassailing, an effort to extract something on the doorstep before you leave.
The Feast of the Ass
The next big official day came on 14 January, when you could head to the Feast of the Ass. It may have been an adaptation of the Roman Pagan Festival of Cervulus, but it was used to celebrate the various appearances of donkeys in the stories of the Bible.
In particular, it was used to commemorate the flight of Mary and Joseph with the Baby Jesus into Egypt. The celebrations would often see a girl carrying a baby or very young child riding a donkey through the streets of a town to church where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the service.
On 2 February, the church celebrated Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ. Once Jesus’s date of birth had been fixed at the 25th of December, it allowed many other things to fall into place. Although Twelfth Night officially ended the Christmas period, it was stretched out in reality until Candlemas, which was the real close of festivities.
Medieval England most often celebrated New Year on a different date altogether. From around the middle of the 12th century until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, New Year in England was celebrated on 25 March. This date was the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, often referred to as Lady Day. When talking about years, medieval chroniclers and official documentation would also talk in terms of the regnal year of the current king and begin a new year on the anniversary of the present monarch’s coronation. So it all gets complicated and it makes being certain of years in some medieval sources quite tricky sometimes.
Once Jesus’s birthday had been pinned down to 25 December, the date on which the Angel visited Mary to tell her that she would give birth to the Son of God was placed precisely nine months earlier on 25 March. This was Lady Day, and was an administrative and legal New Year’s Day in England.
Incidentally, the reason that the UK’s tax year runs from the 5th of April is medieval and related to New Year. The Gregorian calendar shifted the old Julian one by 11 days. So in 1752, Lady Day on 25 March moved 11 days to become the 5th of April, and this date has been retained ever since as the beginning of the UK tax year.
The Peacock Vow
There’s a medieval version of the New Year’s resolution that’s tricky to pin down in the sources. Whether it was a real thing or not, and if it was, whether it was really related to New Year, is debated. But the Peacock Vow supposedly required each knight gathered at a New Year’s feast to place a hand on a peacock (whether it was alive or dead and roasted is also a matter of much discussion) and swear to live by the ideals of chivalry for the forthcoming year.
The peacock was presented to each knight in turn and each made his vow to the bird, after which it was set upon a table to be divided among all present. The Peacock Vow, real or not, speaks to a sense of chivalry, of social responsibility, and of care for others. Maybe not every knight lived up to this ideal or kept that Peacock Vow, just like most of us don’t keep a New Year’s resolution, but the sentiment is a worthy one. A resolution that looks outward, rather than inward.