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The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci

It’s March 25 – Happy Medieval New Year!

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March 25 this year will fly by for most of us as just another day in the Gregorian calendar. But the date was far more significant in the past. For over a millennium across Europe and beyond this was the date of the New Year. In fact this was the case for Protestant Britain and its colonies, including those in America right up until 1752. This was all news to me. So how could it be?

The Christian Significance of March 25

The date is of some significance for several reasons, and especially to those who respect Christian religious beliefs and practices.

March 25 on the Christian calendar is marked as the Feast of the Annunciation, also known as Lady Day, and it is actually connected with Christmas Day (the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth). Although December 25 is celebrated as Christ’s birthday, the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown and the Christian holy men in the early Middle Ages (for one reason or another,  some of them linked to the pagan year ) chose December 25 as the day to celebrate.

The birthday of a Sun God became the birthday of the Son of God. ( Renáta Sedmáková /Adobe Stock)

The birthday of a Sun God became the birthday of the Son of God. (  Renáta Sedmáková  /Adobe Stock)

The Feast of the Annunciation is the day to celebrate the event in the Bible when Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and offered her the job of being mother to  Jesus, the Son of God.  Mary checked some of the conditions and saw that her virginity would remain intact and accepted the holy mission. She instantly became pregnant with the holy child, a decision that would lead to her becoming the most famous woman on Earth.

According to  Franciscan Media , March 25 was first adopted as the Feast of the Annunciation around the 4 th or 5 th centuries. According to the Christian  Church, the feast is a celebration of when God entered the human world as his only son, Jesus, in order to save humanity. It also is a celebration of Mary’s free acceptance of the role of Mother of God, as signifying humanity’s acceptance of God’s act. The Son of God was to live as a human, and so he would come into the world through the same means as a human. Thus the date of the Annunciation was set 9 months (a standard human pregnancy term) before the day of Jesus’ birth.

So why did March 25 become New Year’s Day?

So this explains how this date became so important in religious tradition, but how did this then translate into it being the date of the  beginning of a New Year ? Well that all comes down to how calendars were constructed and evolved, and how the new year had been selected before.

Joanna Gillan has explained for  Ancient Origins,  how, in ancient times, new year celebrations were linked to agricultural or astronomical events:

“In Egypt, for instance, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. The Phoenicians and Persians began their new year with the spring equinox, and the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice. The first day of the Chinese New Year, meanwhile, occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.”

Dates in the Calendar

Not only did the Roman’s make excellent concrete ( still around today ) but they were quite good with coming up with calendars. And it is the reasoning behind the new year in the Roman calendar that caused the imperative for the Church to adopt March 25th as New Year’s Day. And one can understand their reasoning.

Fasti Antiates Maiores, is the oldest archaeologically attested local Roman calendar and the only such calendar known from before the Julian calendar reforms (here reconstructed). (Bauglir/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fasti Antiates Maiores, is the oldest archaeologically attested local Roman calendar and the only such calendar known from before the Julian calendar reforms (here reconstructed). (Bauglir/  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In 46 BC,  Julius Caesar  replaced the traditional Roman calendar with his own (in collaboration with the finest astronomical and mathematical minds in the fledgling  Roman Empire ) in order to recalibrate it with the movement of the Sun, with which it had ‘fallen out of sync’. 

Thus Julius Caesar introduced the  Julian calendar  based on solar movement and at the same time assigned January 1 as the beginning of the year, as the month is named for Janus, the Roman god of change and beginnings, so it most suited the role of the month that was the beginning of a new year.

By the 6 th century, Christianity was really getting a hold all over Europe, and the pagan activities that had been used to celebrate the turning of the year (like feasting and dancing and staying up too late) were not considered very Christian-like so something had to be done to get things to how they should be.

In 567 AD the Council of Tours (a Christian NGO comittee) abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year (which no doubt upset Janus a bit, but he didn’t say anything) and they replaced it with March 25, the date of the conception of their Son of God. The day their God came down to walk amongst humanity seemed like a far more appropriate day to have as the start of the year. Logically, if a new year was to be related to a god, in a Christian world it should be related to the Christian god, and so the conception of the Son of God on Earth seems highly appropriate.

Pope Gregory XIII, portrait by Lavinia Fontana (  Public Domain  ) A Page from a 1584 version of the Gregorian Calendar. (  Public Domain  )

A Millennium of March 25 New Years

And so it was, for years, centuries and the best part of a millennium passed with March 25 celebrated as the first day of the new year in Europe and beyond. People still stayed up too late and had a good time, even though the Church had changed the date to calm things down a bit. 

But then a  new calendar  emerged from Rome in the name of Pope Gregory XIII, and Gregory thought that January 1 was a better day altogether to have as the new year and pretty much all the Catholic countries went along with it. But those Christians who were a bit distant from Rome, especially the Protestants, were reluctant to change, and the British stuck with the March date for years afterwards, and kept it as such in their new colonies and even the pre-United States of America. That was until December 31, 1751, when they relented and made the change and agreed the next day would be a new year and a new start and joined in celebrating with the others.

And so March 25 lost its new year status. But you never know what changes the Brexited Britain might make with its new-found freedom. Happy New Year!

Top image: The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci        Source:  CC BY-SA 4.0

By Gary Manners

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