The New International Encyclopædia/New Year's Day

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NEW YEAR'S DAY. The first day of the year. The custom of celebrating by some religious observance, generally accompanied by festive rejoicing, the first day of the year, appears to have prevailed among most of the ancient nations. The Jews, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Romans, and the Mohammedans, although differing as to the time from which they reckoned the commencement of the year, all regarded it as a day of special interest. In Rome the year anciently began in March; and when Numa, according to the ancient legend, made the year begin on January 1st, that day was held sacred to Janus Bifrons, who was thus supposed to turn at once back upon the old year and forward into the new. On the establishment of Christianity, the usage of a solemn inauguration of the new year was retained; but considerable variety prevailed, both as to the time and as to the manner of its celebration. Christmas Day, the Annunciation (March 25th), Easter Day, and March 1st have all, at different times or places, shared with January 1st the honor of opening the new year; nor was it till late in the sixteenth century that January 1st was in most countries accepted as the first day of the new year. The early fathers—Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, and others—in reprobation of the immoral and superstitious observances of the pagan festival, prohibited in Christian use all festive celebration; and, on the contrary, directed that the Christian year should be opened with a day of prayer, fasting, and humiliation. The mandate, however, was but partially observed.

The social observances of the first day of the new year appear to have been in substance the same in all ages. From the earliest recorded celebration we find notice of feasting and the interchange of presents. Tradition referred the origin of New Year's gifts among the Romans to Tatius, King of the Sabines (B.C. 747). Branches cut from the wood consecrated to Strenia, the goddess of strength, were received by him on the first day of the new year as presents of good omen. He sanctioned the custom and called the gifts strenæ (cf. French jour d'étrennes). In later times in Rome similar practices attended the worship of Salus. Simple strenæ, consisting of branches of bay and of palm, sweetmeats made of honey, figs, or dates as a good omen that the year might bring only joy and happiness (Ovid, Fasti, i., 185-190), finally gave way to gifts of more elaborate character. The custom of presenting gifts to the Emperor became so general that the people went en masse to carry him presents and to wish him a happy new year. The writers of the Empire describe other observances—exchanging visits, masquerading, and feasting—which characterized the day. The festival held by the Druids at the opening of the year resembles the worship of Salus by the Romans. The priests cut the sacred plant and distributed the sprays. In many countries the night before New Year's, ‘Saint Sylvester's Eve,’ was celebrated with great festivity, which was prolonged till after twelve o'clock, when the new year was ushered in with congratulations, visits, and mutual wishes for a happy new year. This is an ancient Scottish custom, which also prevails in many parts of Germany, where the form of wish—“Prosst- (for the Lat. prosit) Neu-jahr”—“May the new year be happy”—attests the antiquity of the custom. In many places the practice of tolling bells at midnight, and thus ‘ringing in the new year,’ is still observed. Many religious communions are wont to celebrate it with a special service or watch night. In the Roman Catholic Church the Te Deum is often sung at the close of the old year in thanksgiving for the blessings granted during its course, and New Year's Day is a holy day of obligation, because on it falls the Feast of the Circumcision.