Perhaps it is of no surprise that I do not celebrate or observe festivals of other faith traditions. Though I wish others a Merry Christmas or Eid Mubarak, neither are my holidays. Likewise, I have tended over the years not to participate in secular observances with a non-Jewish religious background. Halloween, for example, rooted in All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Eve, is only something that I have only recently begun to discuss and explore with my children. Though of course each of these perceived secular holidays has a season in our surrounding society (Valentine’s Day specials at restaurants, pop-up costume stores, etc.), few realize the religious significance of our general secular calendar.
Pope Gregory XIII introduced our calendar (hence, the Gregorian calendar) in October 1582. This calendar modified the previously 1600-year-old Julian calendar, correcting for the “drift” against the solar year. But there was a more specific religious reasoning, too.
Easter is traditionally celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March equinox (the Paschal new moon). It was difficult to harmonize the Julian (solar) with the Hebrew (lunar) calendar. The new Gregorian calendar eliminated any reliance on the Hebrew calendar by deriving Easter directly from the March (vernal) equinox. No longer would clergy need to rely on the calendar declaration of the Papacy—and instead, independent clergy could forecast the date of Easter.
And yet, our calendar does not start with Easter. Over the millennia, the beginning of the calendar varied by period and by country. It some cases, it was indeed Easter. In others it was other dates like December 25th.
Christmas was not widely observed as an independent holiday until after Emperor Constantine personally converted to Christianity and declared it chief religion of the Roman Empire. Further, it was not until 336 CE (during the end of his reign) that Christians (in the west) began officially observing Christmas on December 25th. In fact, during the first few centuries of the Common Era, the birth of Jesus was bundled with an observance on January 6th. According to Christian theology – and quite contrary to Jewish theology – the “Epiphany” marked the occasion when the Magi visited baby Jesus and confirmed the corporeality of God. Church leadership later chose December 25th for Christmas because it was already a folk festival, the pagan winter solstice celebration to honor the son of God: natalis solis invicti.
By superimposing a folk festival with a Christian one, this opened the door to other overlays.
The concept of beginning the calendar on January 1st long predates both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars. According to some a January 1st New Year’s Day dates to 450 BCE (per Ovid’s writings) and to others even older in 713 BCE (per Plutarch’s writings). January 1st was when consuls took office and therefore the ensuing year became their consular year, in their name.
But as we have come to see from the drive to adjust the calendar based on Easter, the church needed January 1st to have religious significance as well.
Just as the Common Era (as we Jews refer to it, as opposed to the less pluralistic Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord) begins counting with the zero-hour as the birth of Jesus, the New Year begins on January 1st because it is conceived of in the Church calendar as the moment when Jesus entered into the covenant—his brit milah – his ritual circumcision.
According to Luke 2:21, Christians learn that “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” Jesus’ parents were observant Jews, and circumcised their son on the eighth day, as is Jewish tradition mandated by the Torah. As Jesus’ blood is of major Christian theological significance, the Church celebrates this occasion with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ—on January 1st…eight days after Christmas observed on December 25th.
Our calendar is not a secular calendar. Quite the contrary. And yet, I still celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I do not celebrate it to honor the Christian religious tradition of venerating Jesus as Lord and/or Savior. I celebrate it because I view myself as a citizen of the world. And this is how we collectively mark time as human beings.
But there is something deeper still. New Year’s Day is another beginning. The nuance is that it is also a second chance. It is an opportunity to do better for each one of us, regardless of our faith background.
We may each have our “second chance” seasons in our own religious traditions, but this is one we can share, irrespective of our faith, irrespective of our beliefs. The only thing we need believe is that we have an opportunity to do it right this time, and to be in synch with each other when we do.