New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and we have once again indulged at the altar of excess without once stopping to consider the origins and deeper meanings of this holiday. Why do we celebrate it with such abandon and excess? What is the real symbolism of this night and how should it be celebrated in accordance with our Christian doctrine? AbyadAswad had the chance to meet with Father Elias Saliba, the Judge in the Ecclesiastical Court for the Melkite Greek Catholic Tribunal, to gain more knowledge of this Feast and to eradicate the factual misconceptions prevailing.
Father Saliba commenced his talk by stating the following: there is a long history of adopting this day as the beginning of the year. January the first was appointed as the beginning of the year according to the Julian calendar in Rome in the year 45 B.C. in accordance with the word of Julius Caesar. During the 16th century A.D., most of Western Europe had declared January 1st the official beginning of the year even before they all switched to the Gregorian Calendar. It was named such according to Roman Pope Gregory XIII who altered the Julian calendar according to the cycle of the sun. It represents the earth’s complete rotation around the sun. It calculated the year to be 365.25 days, made up of 12 months with a leap year every 4 years. The Julian calendar was less accurate at 365.25 days with no further alterations. In 1700, Russia switched from celebrating on September the 1st to January 1st by direct order from Peter the Great 218 years before officially adopting the Gregorian calendar. Before 1873, the Japanese and Korean New Year were celebrated according to the Chinese calendar rather than the Julian calendar. In 1873, five years into the Meiji reform, the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Japan and the New Year was celebrated on January 1st each year. In the Arab world, the Gregorian calendar is referred to as the Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian calendar because it marks the years Jesus Christ was born as stipulated by the Armenian monk Denisius.
Thenceforth, Father Saliba continued by stating that Christmas is considered the second most important holiday after Easter. There was never an official birthday of Christ, so the Council of Nicaea gathered in 325 and chose December 25th as the appointed day to coincide with a pagan holiday dedicated to honoring the sun. The gathering council decided it fits Christ’s message as the bringer of a new dawn in world’s history. In early Christianity, Christimas was not even celebrated. Some Armenian churches celebrated Epiphany on the same day as Christmas, and this pushed Christmas later to January 6th after fixing the Julian calendar. And with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in most countries, a difference in timing resulted between December 25th in the Eastern Church and the Western Gregorian calendar. This difference in increasing as the centuries go by and it is now 13 days between the Eastern Julian calendar and Western Gregorian calendar. Even in the East, there are distinctions as some churches celebrate it on January 7th and other on January 26th for those who combine Christmas with Epiphany. This difference is mostly attributed to Emperor Valens in 378 A.D. It is also said to have been celebrated for the first time in Constantinople in 279 A.D. and Antioch in 380 A.D.
Father Saliba declared that The Winter Solstice was a popular festive day in Roma and many other agricultural communities because the farmers are usually done with their chores and are ready to settle into their homes for the winter. Everyone stayed home, decorated the hearth and exchanged gifts over hearty meals with dishes especially made for the occasion. This was most prevalent in the Scandinavian countries in Northern Europe, so the Christian missionaries used these pagan symbols and altered it to cater to Christian norms and made it spread during the 9th and 10th century.
Father Saliba closed his talk by pointing out that we mainly celebrate New Year’s Eve for historical reasons and not any valid astronomical or religious reasons. History is full of examples of many other dates set for the beginning of the year especially during different solstices. In 1793 during the French Revolution, the beginning of the year was celebrated during the Fall Solstice on September 1st, and it was used for 12 years. In Greece, they celebrated on November 1st. The Jewish faith uses a lunar calendar and celebrates on the first day of September. Nevertheless, nature makes January the perfect candidate for starting over where the inhabitants of earth’s northern hemisphere have their shortest days. The onset of winter promises a new rebirth of the land. This tradition is a celebration of the Roman god Janus, the deity of beginnings and entrances. He was depicted as having two faces, one looking at the past and another looking into the future. The habit of making resolutions on this night is also a Roman tradition when people prayed to Janus and promised to be better individuals in the coming year.
Accordingly, it is clear that New Year’s Eve is another holiday that we have manufactured to fit our needs. It was a time to bring families together in harmony and goodwill, and instead, we have turned it into a gluttonous display of power and decadence.