Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
“Happy New Year!” is what we would have celebrated along with the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 if we were living some centuries ago. Back then, the Annunciation also marked the start of the New Year.
The choice was well thought out and gives us lots to contemplate. Let’s begin at this point: when reforming the calendar in 45 B.C., Julius Caesar made Jan. 1 New Year’s Day. Celebrated with non-Christian festivities, of course.
Naturally, after Jesus life, death and resurrection, the Christians wanted to celebrate New Year’s Day in a spiritual way.
One early thought was to begin the year in springtime, a natural “new beginning.” And around the time of his Resurrection. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, what also came into play was the Jewish month of Nisan, which coincides with March and April on the Julian and Gregorian calendars and opens the sacred year. In fact, Passover is celebrated beginning on the 15th of Nisan then continues through the 22nd. Keep that in mind.
But then arose the question, on which day should the New Year begin for Christians?
That answer really narrowed down when in the sixth century there came along the monk and abbot named Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in Rome. His name isn’t familiar today, but his work certainly is, especially in the use of B.C. and A.D. He established this way of dating from the birth of Jesus Christ — Before Christ and Anno Domini (the Year of Our Lord). Dionysius wanted to start the Christian era in order to reform the Roman calendar and way of calculating events. One of his great concerns was coming up with the date of Easter.
Naturally, the first day of the New Year had to fit somewhere in the new calendar. But where?
The first day of the New Year was determined to be March 25. The Feast of the Annunciation.
But why? And how?
Let’s begin by looking at highlights of the all-important month of Nisan and its relation to Passover. And let’s recall that Jesus was crucified at the time the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.
In his gospel, John makes this clear. “It was preparation day for Passover, and it was about noon” (John 19:14). A note explains the time Jesus — who John the Baptist identified as the Lamb of God — was sentenced to death was the exact time the priests in the temple started slaughtering the Passover lambs.
The official date, then, was the 14th of Nisan. Why? Because the fixed date on which Passover starts is the 15th of Nisan. John also tells us “since it was preparation day, in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the Sabbath, for the Sabbath day of that week was a solemn one, the Jews asked Pilate that their legs be broken and they be taken down” (John 19:31).”
In that year the 14th of Nisan fell on a Friday since, naturally, the next day was the Sabbath, a Saturday, and the 15th of Nisan. Consequently, the Church has always observed Jesus’ crucifixion and death on a Friday — Good Friday.
So when adjusting the dates of the Jewish calendar for the Julian and Gregorian calendar, Dionysius knew that Passover begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox, typically falling in March or April. So what did Dionysius and later others find to be the translated date of the 14th of Nisan in that year of Jesus’ crucifixion?
It was March 25.
“Since March 25 was calculated as the date of the crucifixion of Jesus, there was a belief that one died on the same day that one was conceived,” writes Father John Fields, vice chancellor and director of communications for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. “If Jesus died on March 25 — the 14th of Nisan — then he was also conceived on the 14th of Nisan — March 25.” The date we celebrate the Annunciation. And the Incarnation.
This date began the Christian Era in two ways. Thus, Dionysius set March 25 as the first day of the New Year for peoples — New Year’s Day!
This New Year’s Day was introduced in A.D. 527.
Christian New Year’s Day Grows
But everyone didn’t adopt it immediately because the Julian calendar was still in widespread use. Besides, here and there in Europe, at times Dec. 25, the Nativity, was being celebrated as New Year’s.
Then along came the Council of Tours which in A.D. 567, put an end to Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day and adopted March 25 as the official first day of the New Year. Soon, yet slowly, countries in Europe were using that date to begin the official New Year. By the 8th century England had adopted this way of reckoning the year. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that Charlemagne is believed to be the first Christian sovereign to use it.
Father Fields and other sources also point out that March 25 also had other implications. There was a general belief coming from early martyrologies and the early Church Fathers’ writings that March 25 was also the date on which Adam was created and which marked his fall, as well as other major events — the fall of Lucifer; Moses and the Israelites flight through the Red Sea; and Isaac offered in sacrifice by Abraham.
In his work De trinitate, St. Augustine endorses March 25 as the day of Jesus’ Incarnation and by extension idea when he wrote: “For Christ is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered…”
Annunciation New Year Marches Along
In 1582, along came Pope Gregory XIII who reformed the calendar. Doing so, for the calendar we now use, he placed New Year’s Day, the first day of the year, back to January 1. As he reformed the liturgical calendar also this became the Feast of the Circumcision.
But the Protestant countries weren’t so fast accepting the new Gregorian calendar. The British Empire continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on March 25 until finally adopting the Gregorian calendar on January 1, 1752.
“Until 1751, March 25 was also celebrated as New Year’s Day in the American colonies, since they were under British rule,” adds Father Fields.
Is March 25 still celebrated anywhere as New Year’s Day?
It sure is. In Tuscany in Italy. This year marks the 270th anniversary of the city of Pisa celebrating New Year’s Day on March 25. Florence does likewise (both celebrate the “other” New Year too). The event, begun in 1749, is quite colorful with concerts and festivals. Pisa has a procession to Pisa Cathedral which is dedicated to the Blessed Mother, while in Florence a local pilgrimage proceeds to the Basilica dell'Annunciazione.
So this March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, remember that for centuries this feast day was the Christian New Year’s Day.
On March 25, instead of thinking of a weepy Auld Lang Syne sort of song, pray or recite with the greatest of joy the Magnificat. For through the Annunciation and Mary’s Fiat, Our Lord Jesus was incarnated and then crucified for our redemption. Now that’s something to really wish someone a Happy New Year about!