Since other writers on this site have already declared their indifference to or hostility towards New Year’s celebrations, I suppose I should avoid doing the same, if only for variety’s sake. The truth is, though, that my family never observed the day when I was growing up, and always made a point of going to bed well before midnight on New Year’s Eve.
In part, I think, this was simply because everyone in my family tends to be of a somewhat reclusive temperament, and so is generally averse to loud noises, close crowds, or forced jollity. In larger part, though, I think we always saw New Year’s Day—when treated as a kind of feast day of its own—as a profane intrusion on the twelve days of Christmas, which was by far our favorite time of year. From Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, we were fairly good at keeping the festal flames alight and really had no need of any other excuse for our good spirits.
There is, of course, a feast of the Church traditionally celebrated on January 1st: to wit, the Feast of the Circumcision, considered important not merely as a commemoration of an episode from the biography of Christ, but as a remembrance of the first blood shed by Christ for the sake of the world’s redemption. But that obviously has nothing whatever to do with the arrival of the new year. In fact, throughout the Middle Ages, there was little firm agreement regarding what day really marked the inauguration of a new year, even though the Roman mensal calendar was in continual use.
Anyway, now that I have a family of my own, we do observe the changing of the calendar year in our own tepid way. A glass of champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve, a few mince pies—that sort of thing. My wife, being English, also likes to scare up a few Christmas crackers to pull open, for the amusement of our son, who quite likes having a reason to stay up late.
But, on the whole, it is still a minor observance for us, and nothing to compare to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the last of the Christmas presents are opened, games are played, and the decorations come down from the tree. (I know many Americans think of Christmas as a single day and like to clear away the trappings of the season well before the fifth of January, but that is sheer barbarism, if you ask me, morally only a few steps removed from human sacrifice, cannibalism, or golf.)
The long and the short of it, then, is that I have really nothing much to say about New Year’s Day. But I thought I might offer a little in the way of New Year’s trivia, just to make my small contribution to the day’s festivities, for those disposed to observe them. And, since it is essentially a rather pagan sort of celebration, I thought I would confine my remarks to things pagan.
Admittedly, there have been no practicing pagans in my family since the death of my great uncle Aloysius Bentley, who liked to welcome in the new year by sacrificing a goat or a couple of woodcocks to the gods Janus and Dionysus on a small altar he had had fixed up in his back garden, and then devouring the oblations with copious quantities of Greek wine. But one does not have to be an adherent of that kind of old time religion to take an interest in its folklore.
The oldest Roman calendar of which we know comprised only 304 days and began in March. The winter season was left in a sort of extra-calendrical limbo until the months of Ianuarius and Februarius were added either by King Numa around 714 BC or by the Decemvirs around 450 BC (Roman histories differ upon this point).
January took its name from Janus, a rather uncanny deity associated with all things liminal, whose name is cognate with the Latin words ianua (which means the door or entryway to a house) and ianus (which means an arcade or covered passageway). It was also Numa who built the walled shrine of Janus—the Ianus Geminus—whose gates—the Portae Belli—stood always open in times of war, and were closed only in times of peace.
How old a god Janus is we cannot really say, but some speculate that he was quite a prominent member of the Roman family of deities in very ancient times. Whether he was always depicted as a god with two faces or two heads is difficult to say, but it seems that he was always a god associated with great transitions. It was propitious to invoke his blessings at the beginning of any new undertaking or in the face of some great change in one’s circumstances: a new business venture, the purchase of land, the consecration of a new house, a military campaign, a birth, a marriage, a funeral, political promotion, and so on.
In the nineteenth century, a number of scholars even advanced the suggestion that Janus was one of the oldest of the Indo-European gods, and that he was in fact originally identical to the Hindu god Ganesha (that rather enchanting fellow with the elephant’s head that you frequently encounter at the door of Indian restaurants). The names are certainly similar, and of course both gods appear somewhat irregular above the neck (Saivite legend explains Ganesha’s unconventional good looks as the result of an accident involving his father Shiva’s contemplative “third eye,” but that may be a later development of the myth).
More importantly, though, Ganesha is also a god of passageways and gates, a liminal god, one whose blessing is invoked at the beginnings of new undertakings. So it is not at all unlikely that—just as, say, the old Vedic deity Varuna was originally one and the same with the Peloponnesian Ouranos—Ganesha and Janus might once have been some single titanic god of strange and terrible aspect.
Who knows, though? I do not, but it is the best I can come up with for this occasion. Whatever the case, I hope any of you who plan to spend tomorrow night chasing after strange gods will find something of interest in it. At my house, however, we will still be celebrating Christmas.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.