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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

New Year, Festival of the.

The custom of celebrating the first day of the year by some religious observance, generally accompanied by festive rejoicing, is of very ancient origin, and appears to have prevailed generally among the nations of antiquity. The Jews, the Egyptians, Persians, Hidu, Chinese, Romans, and the Mohammedans, although differing as to the time from which they reckoned the beginning of the year, all regarded it as a day of special interest. For the Jewish usages, see the preceding article.

The old Roman year began in March, and on the first day of that month the festival Ancylia was celebrated, when the salii or priests of Mars carried the sacred shield in procession through the city, and the people spent the day in feasting and rejoicing. The Romans counted it lucky to begin any new enterprise or to enter upon any new office on new-year's day. The same sacredness was attached to the first day of the year after the change took place in the Roman calendar that made January the commencing month instead of March; and Pliny tells us that on the first of January people wished each other health and prosperity, and sent presents to each other. It was accounted a public holiday, and games were celebrated in the Campus Martitus. The people gave themselves up to riotous excess, and various kinds of heathen superstition. The first Christian emperors kept up the custom, though it tolerated and afforded the opportunity for idolatrous rites. The Church, however, saw itself finally obliged to condemn these, and prohibited Christians from joining in the social celebration, and ended by making it a religious festival. "It was only," remarks Neander, "to oppose a counter-influence to the pagan celebration that Christian assemblies were finally held on the first day of January, and they were designed to protect Christians against the contagious influence of pagan debauchery and superstition. Thus when Augustine had assembled his Church on one of these occasions, he first caused to be sung the words,'Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the heathen' (Psalms 106:47); and hence he took occasion to remind his flock of their duty, especially on this day, to show that as they had in truth been gathered from among the heathen to exhibit in their life the contrast between the Christian and the heathen temper, to substitute alms for new-year's gifts (the strenae), edification from Scripture for merry songs, and fast for riotous feasting. This principle was gradually adopted in the practice of the Western Church, and three days of penitence and fasting were opposed to the pagan celebration of January, until, the time being designated, the festival of Christ's circumcision was transferred to this season (the first day of January being the eighth day after the nativity), when a Jewish rite was opposed to the pagan observances, and its reference to the circumcision of the heart by repentance to heathen revelry" (Ch. Hist. 2:314,315). This occurred as early as A.D. 487. In Herrick's Noble Numbers are three songs, with choruses, for this day, illustrating the religious ceremony, and drawing a consolation therefrom:

"Come, thou, and gently touch the birth

Of him who's Lord of heaven and earth

And softly handle him: y'ad need,

Because the pretty babe do's bleed.

Poore pittied child! who from

thy stall Bring'st in thy blood a balm that shall

Be the best New-Year's gift to all."

In the 6th century it became a solemn festival, the Council of Tours in 566 ordaining that "the chant of litanies should on the first of January be opposed to the superstitions of the pagans," and that the Eucharist, or Mass of the Circumcision, be celebrated. By the primitive Christians the day was held as a fast, in opposition to the Roman then pagan custom of feasting, dancing, and gift-making. In the time of Numa the day was dedicated to Janus, the double-faced deity, who faced the future while he looked back upon the past. The Romans offered him a cake of sifted meal, with incense, salt, and wine. They also did something in the way of their art or calling to begin the year industriously, that they might have good-fortune through it. By degrees, however, as the Christian faith and strength increased, and the necessity for the distinction grew less important, the Church, in the 8th century, abrogated the fast, and the earlier and more congenial jovial customs were gradually resumed, and have continued in one good form or another to the present. (Regarding the observance of new-year's by the Christian Church, see, especially, Alt, Der christliche Cultus. pt. ii, p. 46; Augusti, Denkwurdigkeiten der christl. Kirche, 1:311 sq.).

The Hindû s call the first day of the year Prajapatya, the day of the Lord of creation. It is sacred to Ganesh, the god of wisdom, to whom they sacrifice male kids and wild deer, and celebrate the festival with illuminations and general rejoicings. Among the mountain tribes it is customary to sacrifice a buffalo every new year's day, in the presence of a multitude assembled to witness the solemn ceremony.

The Chinese begin their year about the vernal equinox, and the festival observed on the occasion is one of the most splendid of their religious feasts. All classes, including the emperor, mingle together in free and unrestrained intercourse, and unite in thanksgiving for mercies received, as well as in prayer for a genial season and an abundant crop. In Japan the day is spent in visiting and feasting. The Sabians held a grand festival on the day that the sun enters Aries, which was the first day of their year, when the priests and the people marched in procession to the temples, where they sacrificed to the planetary gods. Among the ancient Persians prisoners were liberated and offenders forgiven on this day; and, in short, the Persian new-year's day resembled the Sabbatical year of the Jews. A curious Oriental custom peculiar to this day may be mentioned. It is called by the Arabs and Persians the "Game of the Beardless River," and consists in a deformed man, whose hair has been shaved and his face ludicrously painted with variegated colors, riding along the streets on an ass, and behaving in the most whimsical manner, to the great delight of the multitudes that followed him. Thus equipped, he rides from door to door soliciting small pieces of money. A similar custom is still found in various parts of Scotland under the name of "guizzarding."

On March 10, or the commencement of the year among the Druids, was performed the famous ceremony of cutting the mistletoe (q.v.). Beneath the oak where it grew preparations were made for a banquet and sacrifices, and for the first time two white bulls were tied by the horns. Then one of the Druids, clothed in white, mounted the tree and cut off the mistletoe with a golden sickle, receiving it into a white sagum, or cloak, laid over his hand. The sacrifices were next commenced, and prayers were offered to God to send a blessing upon his own gift, while the plant was supposed to bestow fertility on man and beast, and to be a specific against all sorts of poisons.

On the first day of the year, as Humboldt informs us, the Mexicans carefully adorned their temples and houses, and employed themselves in various religious ceremonies. One, which at first perhaps was peculiar to this season, though subsequently it became of more frequent occurrence, was the offering up to the gods of a human sacrifice. The wretched victim, after having been flayed alive, was carried to the pyramidal summit of the sacred edifice which was the scene of these barbarities, and after his heart had been torn out by a priest in presence of assembled thousands, his body was consumed to ashes by being placed on a blazing funeral pile. The Muyscas, or native inhabitants of New Granada, celebrate the same occasion with peaceful and unbloody rites. They assemble as usual in their temples, and their priest distributes to each worshipper a figure formed of the flour of maize. which is eaten in the full belief that it will secure the individual from danger and adversity. The first lunation of the Muysca year is denominated by "the month of the ears of maize." From the various facts thus adduced, it is plain that the rites connected with New-Year's day may be traced back to the remotest ages, that they have been celebrated in all nations and ages, and that, though of a festive and cheerful, they have never been uniformly of an essential religious character.

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 as usages of the day. Suetonius alludes to the bringing of presents to the capital; and Tacitus makes a similar reference to the practice of giving and receiving New Year's gifts. Under the Caesars these presents became such a source of personal profit to the sovereign, and so onerous to his subjects, that Claudius limited them by a decree. This custom was continued by the Christian kingdoms into which the Western empire was divided. In England we find many examples of it, even as a part of the public expenditure of the court, so far down as the reign of Charles II; and, as all our antiquarian writers mention, the custom of interchanging presents as common in all classes of society (see Eccleston's English Antiquities, p. 317, 443). At present the ringing in of the New Year from the belfry of churches is the only open demonstration of joy at the recurrence of the anniversary. This is now a custom also in other countries. In France it still subsists, uneclipsed by the still popular practice of Christmas gifts. In many countries the night of New-Year's Eve, "St. Svlvester's Eve," was celebrated with great festivity, which was prolonged till after twelve o'clock, when the New Year was ushered in with congratulations, complimentary 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" sufficiently attests the antiquity of the custom. Many religious communions are wont to celebrate the approach of the New Year with a special service. especially the Methodists. In the Roman Catholic Church the Te Deum is still sung at the close of the old year; and New-Year's day is a holiday of strict obligation. For monographs on the ancient. customs, both among the Jews and other nations, in his respect, see Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 117, 118.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'New Year, Festival of the.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/n/new-year-festival-of-the.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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