Why Does New Year’s Day Come After Christmas?

There is no inherent reason that the celebration of New Year’s Day should be only a week after the observance of Christmas, but Westerners have accommodated quite comfortably to the opportunity to have an extended holiday.  Historically speaking, the juxtaposition of Christmas and New Year’s Day seems not to have been designed, but rather came about as a concatenation of institutional decisions.  The earliest Roman calendars set March 1 as the beginning of the year, and our names for September, October, November, and December came from the Latin numbers for seven through ten.  In 153 BC the Romans designated January 1 as the beginning of the new year because it marked the installation of the Roman Consuls to their year-long terms.  The name of January was particularly appropriate to this purpose, since it was named for the god Janus, who was pictured with two faces looking in opposite directions, forward and backward.  Jan. 1 as the beginning of the calendar year was continued by Julius Caesar in his reconstructed calendar in the first century BC and was adjusted by Pope Gregory in the late 16th century into the form we use today; but the church did not give Jan. 1 any religious significance, except that it was dedicated to the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  Protestant countries, especially England, didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until the eighteenth century, so they were even less concerned with any religious connection between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

However, I have been thinking this year of how there is a spiritual and philosophical dimension to this juxtaposition of the Feast of the Nativity and New Year’s, in that it lends itself to a consideration of the interaction of light and time.  God’s first act of creation was with the words, “Let there be light,” and His second act was to separate darkness from the light to create Day and Night—that is, out of light came time, even before the physical markers of time, the sun and moon.  Since all of God’s creation was seen to be good, there was no association of darkness with evil until sin entered the world.  In its unsullied form, darkness provides a time of rest for mankind and a meaningful rhythm between work and renewing sleep.  As a result of sin, God’s orderly balancing of light and darkness was thrown into disarray.  Thus, when Jesus, the Light of the world appeared on the scene, He was sent to pierce the darkness and to overcome it (John 1:4-5)—one might even say, to redeem it.  The birth of Jesus came at the proper time according to God’s plan and mankind’s need (Mark 1:14-15; Gal. 4:4-5).  Through the Incarnation, God re-enacted His original initial act of creation, the insertion of light into chaos.

So in this new beginning, the sowing of the seed of regeneration, we have also an incipient redemption of time, a covenant to translate us into a timeless New Heaven and New Earth, in which there is such perfect rest that there is no night, and no need of sun and moon, for the Light of the Father and the Lamb are perpetually banishing sin-blemished night (Rev. 21:22-25).  Thus, the new beginning represented in Christmas can lead us naturally into a celebration of our New Birth as children of God through the grace of the sacrificed Lamb of God.

Our human celebration of the New Year has something of the ambivalence of the God Janus for whom January is named.  When we look both back and forward in time, we experience a mixture of regret and hope, while recognizing our limited ability to do any better in the future than we have in the past.  But that double view has been redeemed and unified by the Perfect Link between past and future, our Lord Jesus.  It is that thought I have expressed in the following poem.


For the New Year

Would to God

That one of the faces of Janus

Were altruistic; but both,

So far as I can see,

Reflect the inability of mortal me

To espouse the good for its own sake.

I hardly make the turn toward love

Before I find my comfort

Has not been left behind.

There seems but relative difference

Between the good I choose

And the evil I refuse.

Thanks be to God that He makes

Neither too much of the backward aspect

Nor too little of the hopeful prospect.

He set the model when He looked

Two directions at once,

But with a single eye.

                              --Elton D. Higgs


Image: Nativity with a Torch by the Le Nain brothers, c. 1635-40, Public Domain


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)