I always took New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day at face value — they were secular holidays, celebrated as such — until I moved to Israel many years ago.
There, I found most Jewish Israelis did not celebrate on Dec. 31 and that nothing closed on New Year’s Day. The calendar flipped over — a digit or two replaced — and no one seemed to notice, let alone care.
I asked a friend, a born-and-raised Jerusalemite, what was going on. “We call New Year’s Sylvester,” he explained, “and we don’t celebrate it because it’s a Christian holiday.”
His response surprised me. I’d never heard of Sylvester even though, as a child, I was awash in Christianity. I’d grown up in the Deep South, in a relatively small city that, as of 2010, had over 300 houses of worship, including 74 Southern Baptist congregations. In middle school, my best friend was Catholic and, following Saturday night sleepovers, I went to Sunday Mass with her and her family on a regular basis.
With a little digging online, I discovered that Dec. 31 is, indeed, according to the Catholic calendar, the feast day of St. Sylvester, a fourth-century pope. I also found that it’s not the only link between Christianity and New Year’s.
Like Dec. 31, New Year’s Day is a Catholic feast day. It was long known as the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord and the Octave of the Nativity (that’s just a fancy way of saying that it was the eighth day after Jesus’s birth and, thus, the day he was circumcised in accordance with Jewish tradition.) But that changed in the 1960s and, today, New Year’s Day corresponds to the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.
These discoveries left me with questions about the history of religious observances that fall on the New Year and whether or not we might all, unwittingly, actually be partaking in Catholic feast days. I also wondered what other religious traditions might be hidden in our New Year festivities, including the foods we eat.
Battle for New Year’s soul
I took my questions to Andrew McGowan, an Anglican priest and historian who serves as dean of the Episcopal seminary at Yale Divinity School.
McGowan explained that the feast day of St. Sylvester came from the same fourth century calendar that gave us the Dec. 25 date for Christmas. That his feast day corresponds with New Year’s Eve is a sheer coincidence — St. Sylvester, who was a pope in life, died and was buried on Dec. 31.
Nonetheless, St. Sylvester is remarkable for a couple of reasons, one of which might account for the staying power of his name.
“In the fourth century, most of the people who get into the Christian saints’ calendar are martyred. Sylvester is one of the first who gets a feast day for himself without having gotten (killed) and it’s because he was the pope when Constantine became a Christian,” said McGowan.
Constantine’s conversion marked the moment that Christianity began to “transition from a marginalized religion to an imperial power,” he added. Because Sylvester happened to be at the church’s helm at the time, he gained significance.
Sylvester’s legacy also may have benefitted from the work of Augustine of Hippo, who, in the years following Sylvester’s death, was “castigating people” for celebrating the secular New Year holiday, McGowan said.
Augustine, who later became a saint, and other ancient Christians “were ambivalent about (New Year’s) because it was a Roman holiday,” McGowan said, adding that “even in the fourth century ... people were having a little too much of a good time.”
Although St. Sylvester’s feast fell on New Year’s Eve by sheer coincidence, it was “used to remind people that they shouldn’t be getting drunk, they should be hitting the church,” McGowan said.
Prayer and penance on Jan. 1
Early Christians also battled for the soul of Jan. 1, in part by protesting raucous secular events.
One man, Telemachus, was stoned to death in a Roman amphitheater in A.D. 404 after he attempted to stop a New Year’s Day gladiator match, according to Christopher Labadie’s “The Octave Day of Christmas: Historical Development and Modern Liturgical Practice.”
Telemachus had attempted to shame the crowd, shouting “Cease from the superstition of idols and polluted sacrifices! (For) today is the octave of the Lord,” Labadie noted. Jan. 1 is now the little-known feast day of St. Telemachus.
According to Labadie, when Telemachus was martyred, Jan. 1 wasn’t yet an official feast day. It was, instead, observed as a day of “prayer and penance.”
But festivities tied to the eighth day after Jesus’s birth were quickly catching on and, a century later, Christians began having circumcision feasts.
Jan. 1 officially became a Catholic feast day marking Jesus’s circumcision in the 1500s, and it remained as such until 1961, when it was changed to the “Octave Day of Christmas.”
In 1969, the feast day was changed again, getting its current name: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Reflecting on the changes to the festival’s name and focus, McGowan lamented the lost opportunity to discuss Jesus’ Jewish identity.
Changing the feast is a “little bit like dumbing it down,” he said. The Feast of Circumcision was “an opportunity to explain and teach and probably to look for positive connections between Jewish and Christian identity. It’s a missed opportunity.”
But if you look at the food many Americans eat on New Year’s Day, that linkage is still visible, albeit in a quiet way. The popular New Year’s Day dish of black-eyed peas, known as “Hoppin’ John” in the South, is typically on the Rosh Hashanah table when Jewish people celebrate their New Year in the fall.
Referred to variously as lubia or rubia — depending, in part, on where one’s Jewish ancestors came from — black-eyed peas are a symbol of abundance. It is widely believed that Jews brought the custom to the New World — more specifically, to Georgia — during British colonial times. There, the tradition was mapped on to the secular, Gregorian calendar and it spread throughout what is the United States today.
Multiple new years
If this all sounds a bit confusing, that’s appropriate, since confusion around the date of the new year has existed for centuries.
The Hebrew calendar offers a prime example: not only is it wildly out of sync with the Gregorian calendar, but we also have not one but four new years, though the numerical year only changes on one of them (Rosh Hashanah — The New Year.)
McGowan noted that New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day haven’t always been celebrated on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. In much of Europe as late as the 18th century, the new year began on March 25, which is the date of the annunciation. In some places, Dec. 25, or Christmas, doubled as the New Year.
He also pointed out that still today the Catholic liturgical calendar begins not on Jan. 1 but on the first Sunday of Advent.
Even in the United States, multiple new years exist, McGowan added. There’s the fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and, of course, the school calendar, which doesn’t seem to correspond with much of anything (as parents who have to arrange care for out-of-school children all know.)
And it’s worth adding that the Catholic Church recently added another layer to the religious significance of Jan. 1 feast day. In 1967, Pope Paul VI also named the date “World Peace Day” — a powerful idea to meditate on at the start of any new year.