New Year on March 25?

Although many believe that the New Year universally begins on the first day of January, it begins on different dates for different societies and cultures.116 In the past, for some native tribes the arrival of certain animals for the hunt or specific shoals of fish marked the beginning of the year. In some parts of the ancient Near East, the New Year was celebrated in autumn, when rains ended the long drought of summer. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, watched for the rising of the Dog Star, Sirius, which foretold the flooding of the Nile, bringing new life to land and people and heralding the New Year. Usually, however, the New Year officially began in spring at the beginning of the growing season, marked by the vernal or spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere.     

The beginning of spring, a season of rebirth and of planting new crops, was a logical time to start the New Year. Around 2000 BCE, the Babylonian New Year began on March 25, which many cultures in ancient times regarded as the traditional fixed date for the vernal or spring equinox. In ancient Persia, present-day Iran, the New Year, called Nowruz meaning ‘New Day’, began on March 21. This New Year’s date is still celebrated in Iran.

The Romans similarly started their New Year on March 25. Originally, the ancient Roman calendar had only ten months, still reflected in the names of some months derived from Roman numerals. Therefore, if starting the year in March, September is the seventh month; October, the eighth; November, the ninth; and December, the tenth month. In about 715 BCE, the months of January and February were added to the Roman calendar. Over time, through continued tampering by various emperors, the calendar became out of synchronisation with the sun. Therefore, in 46 BCE, as part of a calendar reform, Julius Caesar decreed the New Year should start at the beginning of January and January 1 became a time of great festivities for the Roman people. However, with the spread of Christianity, the Church outlawed this customary celebration, banning all Christians from observing any festivities on this day by threat of excommunication, as the celebrations represented paganism and idolatry derived from the feast of the heathen two-faced god Janus, after whom January is named.  

Things changed again in 567 CE at the Council of Tours! The Christian Church, now all-powerful, moved the New Year’s date from January 1 back to March 25 as it had been in ancient times all along. Thus, for centuries, all European countries celebrated the New Year on March 25, a fact not generally known today.

However, it was not to remain this way. When Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the New Year’s date was again moved – back to January 1. However, different countries throughout Europe adopted this date for the New Year at different times: Catholic countries all adopted it soon thereafter, but Protestant countries took some time to follow suit – Germany changing over in 1700, England in 1752, and Sweden in 1753. Hence, just a few centuries ago, these northern European countries still wished one another a happy new year on March 25.

Essentially, these changes to the New Year’s date were to have a lasting impact on traditions we still observe, namely April Fools’ Day and the famous Easter Bunny and Easter eggs (see below).


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