When does the new year begin?

Manuscript “Divrei David” of Dawid ben Jakub, 1689—1700, public domain.

Just a few days ago we welcomed in the year 2018. Starting the count-down of a new twelve-month cycle from the first day of January seems to us to be both a natural and objective way of measuring time. Meanwhile, this date is quite conventional.

The tradition of beginning the new year on the 1st of January is derived from a reform of the Roman calendar ordered by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. On the territory of the empire, the first day of the month Ianuarius was celebrated as a holiday long after the advent of Christianity. The Church, seeing this as a relic of paganism, criticized not only the course of the ceremony but also the choice of the date which marks the start of a year itself. Efforts to eradicate the custom came to nothing, so they tried to make the 1st of January a Christian holiday, setting the liturgical memorial of the circumcision of Jesus on that day.

The ordainment of the holiday resulted in the Roman way of measuring time spreading across Western Europe. However, this was not the only or even the most widespread style of creating a calendar. It was popular to begin the new year from the 1st of March, which was practised in ancient Rome (alongside the tradition of starting the new year on the 1st of January) and later in the Merovingian state of Franks and Venice, where this tradition stayed in use the longest, until the end of the existence of the independent Republic in 1797.

Krakow wall calendar for 1525: Naznamionowanie dzienne miesiącow nowych pełnych [...] lata [...] 1525, source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In Pisa and Florence, it was different still. The new year began with the day of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, that is, on the 25th of March. This way of measuring time had become popular in other Italian cities over time, as well as in England, where the custom of starting the year on the Annunciation lasted until 1753. In previous centuries, this style of a calendar was commonly associated with England and was called “calendar calculation” or “the English custom”.

From today’s point of view, the strangest custom existed in France, where the new year was counted from Easter, which is a movable feast that falls between the 22nd of March and the 25th of April. This resulted in the varying length of a year, certain days occurring twice in a year and others not occurring at all. The days falling twice in a given year were differentiated from one another by adding the phrases “before Easter” [ante pascham] or “after Easter” [post pascham] to them.

In the Middle Ages, the New Year was often celebrated at the same time as Christmas. The Papal Curia used the 25th of December as the beginning of a year for a long time, which was imitated by numerous church and royal chancelleries.

“Hikifuda” advertising handbill in the form of a calendar, 1912, public domain.

Yet another calculation was adopted in Byzantium, where the new year began on September 1st. Outside of the Eastern Roman Empire, this system was adopted in southern Italy, which remained within the sphere of Constantinople’s political influences for a long time. It was different in Rus’ (also in the Rus’ lands within the borders of Poland and Lithuania), where according to the local custom the new year was celebrated on the 1st of March. Later, the Eastern Slavs, alongside their own one, also began to use the Byzantine calculation of the new year.

While the first day of the Christian calendar has always been conventional, the traditional Jewish beginning of the year is said to commemorate the creation of the world. The Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashanah, is set for the first day of the month of tishrei, which falls around the September equinox. The work of Dawid ben Jakub, presented on the Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, whose manuscript is kept in the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków is devoted to the issue of calculating time according to the Jewish calendar.

On the territories of Poland in the Middle Ages, two dates were used for the beginning of the year: the 25th of December and the 1st of January. Both of them were still in use in the 13th century, with the Christmas date likely being the preferred one. In the next century, the date which is in use today became more popular. The Royal Chancellery started the annual cycle on the 1st of January but church chronicles and sources promoted the counting of the new year from the 25th of December up until the 15th century. Today’s calculation of the new year gained a definite advantage in the 16th century, although there were still cases of counting years from Christmas.

The first preserved Polish wall calendar for the year 1525, published in Kraków, begins on the 1st of January. On the website of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, you can see a printed calendar from a completely different cultural environment – “hikifuda”, an advertising handbill in the form of a calendar.

Elaborated by: Adam Spodaryk (Editorial Team of Malopolskas Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Literature:

  1. Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. 2, Warszawa 1901, pp. 306–308, vol. 3, Warszawa 1902, pp. 267–269.
  2. Mikołaj z Szadka, Naznamionowanie dzienne miesiącow nowych pełnych [...] lata [...] 1525, [Kraków: Hieronim Wietor, 1524/1525], ed. Wiesław Wydra, Poznań 2010.
  3. Bronisław Włodarski, Chronologia polska, Warszawa 2006.