for 1 January 2023
New Year’s Day is definitely one of those holidays that feels out of joint. I don’t think it’s me. I think this date, this point in the solar year, lacks ties to reality. It is historically wrong. When the Romans created these two new months and set their state calendars to begin on 1 January, that date fell a bit later in the solar year than it does now. When January was created, the 1st of the month was further separated from the solstice, about where Plough Monday falls now. So the solstice was definitely over when they rang in the new fiscal year. It felt like a good time to get back to business. Today… we’ve only just entered the time of latest sunrise and that won’t end until the 11th — two days after this year’s Plough Monday, by the way.
But it wasn’t the New Year for most Romans. That came later, at around the vernal equinox, when life was springing forth again. What started on 1 January was their consular year, the official state calendar round of taxing and officiating and bookkeeping. As you can imagine, nobody celebrated that. So as their written calendar drifted, closing the distance between the solstice and that artificial 1 January, nobody much cared. Some might have grumbled that they had to attend to the books during the solstice period, but most people didn’t have anything to do with book business. Working during the midwinter break was a burden for the admin class that very likely the working class (the slaves) thought was reasonable payback for being rich folks.
You have to remember that most people did not (and still do not) have calendars. They kept time by the sun and the moon and the seasons. There is nothing remarkable about 1 January and there never has been. There are no standing stones set to mark the date, which you might expect to find if this was a day of new beginnings to the annual round. There is no change in weather or animal activity. There is no change in day length or plant life. It’s not even a subtle inflection point like the cross-quarter days. And of course it has nothing to do with agriculture. It’s divorced from all biophysical reality. It’s just the day that the pencil pushers went back about the business of annoying everybody else.
So why do we have any traditions associated with this day? Well, that’s complicated.
That starts with Saturnalia, I suppose. Many of our traditions can be traced to this Roman celebration of the solstice, the ending of the encroaching darkness and the beginning of the growing light. We still have Saturn, the old agricultural deity who represented all that was old and creaky and in need of updating, presiding over this day with a scythe, along with the infant in the top hat who comes to throw the old man out. There was also gift-giving, often lavishly so. There was feasting and revelry, also lavish, even for the slaves. Perhaps especially for them because this was the time of year when order was turned on its head. Slaves became masters, masters served their servants. Masters gave gifts to the people who provided for their most intimate needs the rest of the year. Masters allowed the slaves to eat as much as they could from the winter larder. (That this helped clean out the grain silos in preparation for the early spring harvest had nothing to do with their generous impulses, I’m sure.) Saturnalia was the carnival release that all hierarchical human societies need to wash away the inevitable resentment against hierarchy.
Christmas absorbed much of Saturnalia right down to the “birth of the light”. This was intentional. There would have been no conversion of the slave class if they were not allowed to keep their traditions, no matter what the state demanded. As a ruler, you can kill some trouble-makers to make your point, but you can’t kill or even harm most people — because those people feed you and your entire state apparatus. So it’s better to appease than to punish. The Nativity is appeasement from a state that desired modernization. In fact, much of the Church calendar is appeasement… it’s the older popular traditions carrying on with new names…
Saturnalia is a new year; it is not the New Year, which is another time of revelry and disorder that recognizes the start of a new season of growth, the beginning of the year of food production (because everything is about food). Midwinter is just too indistinct and dark to feel like a beginning. It may be an ending, hence Saturn and his scythe, but even that is a rather fine point. The New Year was and is celebrated later when there are signs of new growth. This is true for the entire world, not just those parts influenced by the Roman Empire.
You see, imposing a calendar usually has very little impact on popular traditions because those are tied to reality and don’t work elsewhere in time or place. But then came our culture… We have become progressively disconnected from reality. Our traditions need to be explained to us now; we don’t just know how to fit ourselves into the flow of time. So with the lost meaning and disengagement, there has been drift, not a little of it purely opportunistic. For example, a new year became the New Year because there is less disruption to labor and the resulting profits if you get all that carnival out of the peasantry all at once. New Year was wrenched away from the spring where it makes sense and dumped into Saturnalia — where it doesn’t.
Meanwhile the fiscal new year carried on also, in the background as it always had been. Books were reset on 1 January, but not much else besides books showed any signs of renewal. Again, nobody had calendars. Only those few with books could even say when 1 January fell. But as this culture became estranged from other ways of telling time and became more deeply bound to all our synthetic intellectual creations — including calendars — the artificial state business calendar became the measure of the solar year. January 1st was then by default the New Year, regardless of traditions or reality.
In the late Middle Ages — the early days of the modern drift away from reality — it was so confusing that even much of officialdom reverted to beginning the fiscal new year in March. By Reformation times, the manipulation of the calendar had become so ludicrous that even the books were messed up. For example, January 1550 in Anglo territories happened in 1551 for Continental business calendars. What does the New Year even mean in that context? Most of this was just stupid chest beating amongst the elite, but the elite increasingly set and enforced the calendar. So their power plays affected everything else. Most especially time. Because time was labor was money… for them…
In the 18th century, EuroWestern cultures had become homogenized enough to agree to start the year on 1 January. At the same time there were so many disruptions and upheavals to daily life that there were no traditions left. Most people didn’t have the time, the resources or the energy to celebrate anything. Nor could they remember why it was traditional to celebrate. The Enlightenment had quite a chilling effect on the warmth and brightness of carnival. For the last several centuries, holidays have been the province of the wealthy — who really didn’t need a holiday… and still don’t…
In any case, we have one more chapter to add to the story. It began in the Reformation, particularly in the staunchly anti-Catholic territories. The most ardent Reformers threw out all the echoes of paganism. This meant that nearly all Church holidays were erased, Christmas and New Year’s Day included. Christmas was illegal in the British territories because the celebration was immoral and disruptive — and it interfered with profit making. Massachusetts reluctantly repealed the last ban in 1681, but Midwinter was not widely celebrated in Anglo lands until the 19th century (thank you, Charles Dickens…).
The twist to this tale is that the most uptight Calvinists and the most vehemently secular communists, those who do not know the meaning of “holiday”, have delivered Saturnalia to the present almost completely intact — drunks and fireworks and gifting and feasting all inclusive. The only change is that it all is compacted into one day, 1 January, the New Year.
Scots and Slavs would not give up carnival for the sake of their cold gods and the colder elites who served those gods. In Scotland, Saturnalia is called Hogmanay and is indistinguishable from the ancient midwinter revelries, except as latitude dictates. There is less fresh fruit and more roasted meat, less running naked through the streets and more fire. But there is just as much alcohol and mayhem. In Soviet Russia, the atheist communists tossed out the Orthodox calendar, so the serfs — now called “workers” — grabbed ahold of what was left to them, New Year’s Day, and put all the carnival they could into that one day of being people, not laborers for others. They even kept Saturn as master of the revelries — though he first became St Nicholas under Orthodoxy and then Grandfather Frost under communism.
Today, in those many places influenced by Calvinism and communism, children receive gifts. Nothing as exorbitant as American Christmas, but everything in the world to them. Families gather for feasting, which usually includes sweet treats to draw sweet fortune in the coming year. There are games and music and dancing. People go house to house with New Year’s greetings and blessings. And more gifts. Mostly alcoholic. And no work is done.
There, in those places with traditions, 1 January is a real holiday, however divorced from biophysical reality. It is a time outside of normal time, a sacred day set apart from mundane work days. Here… well, the pencil pushers get a day off. And there isn’t much agricultural work done on New Year’s Day — not even where the weather is milder. (There just isn’t much to do after the solstices.) But few other people get a day apart from their regular working lives. Much of the retail world seems to double down on sales and promotions on New Year’s Day, making many people work overtime today.
But we’re also not really encouraged to cut out the excess, because that would cut into profits. We just have to do it all in the middle of the night. And be ready to work a double shift in the morning.
I am on the borders of the pencil-pushing class. I sell the books… so I get the day off. But I’m not sure what to do with it. I don’t want another feast today. I’m quite full, thank you very much. I don’t want to go out in this weather — which is so dark that it was hard to distinguish day from night this morning. And anyway, this is a work day for many people I would want to go see. I’m not fond of alcohol even when it feels like the time for it. But this certainly does not feel like the time. It is not the New Year for me, nor for anyone in this culture. It’s just another day to spend money…
This is what happens when time is cut apart from reality and tradition. Displaced holidays make no sense. They become meaningless obligations. And make no mistake, you are obliged to celebrate. Elites are counting on your excess and will be most put out if you choose a more rational path. In fact, the elite class would implode if you stopped participating in its artificial calendar.
But what if you chose to celebrate carnival as it was intended in all its lavish disorder? Ironically, I think that would be the worst thing for elites today. First, there’s the work stoppage. Nobody worked on holidays. Can you even imagine a day like that now? Now, the elites don’t work, but everybody else works harder. But then, all that excess didn’t involve much expenditure in Roman times, nor does it in gifting cultures today. In grounded and traditional cultures, you don’t go out and buy feasts and gifts. You make them or take them out of your own wealth. And for the most part, the wealthy are on the giving end; the workers receive. So there was no profit in Saturnalia, nor in the New Year, nor in any of the many carnival holidays honored throughout the year. That is what makes them holy, after all. Profit is sacrificed for the sake of the day.
Just imagine what we could do if we reclaimed those holidays…
Just finished up The Winners, the final book in Fredrik Backman’s Beartown trilogy. There isn’t a stronger writer than Backman. His command of telling the human story would be intimidating if the resulting tale wasn’t so deeply resonant. But he wrenches you from laughter to tears like whiplash. On every page.
It is wholly absorbing up until the conclusion.
But then you need a bit of emotional relaxation.
So today I picked up Seasparrow by Kristin Cashore, the latest episode in her epic Graceling series. Cashore is no less insightful, but her tone is lighter, more fanciful, even though there is more blood and tragedy than in anything written by Backman.
I’m finding this to be a perfect pairing.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023