Happy New Year

But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Catholic tradition holds, on reasonably secure grounds, that Jesus was crucified on the twenty-fifth of March; which makes it the feast day of St. Dismas. That is the name assigned by tradition to the robber who was crucified with him, to whom he said, ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ By a happy coincidence, I am writing this in a year when Good Friday falls on March 25: a rare event.

It is also the Feast of the Annunciation. On somewhat less secure, but still reasonable grounds, the Church calculates that Jesus was born on December 25; which means, in round numbers, that he must have been conceived somewhere around March 25, and the angel who broke the news to Mary is therefore thought to have appeared on that date. This fits in with the ancient Jewish tradition that great sages and prophets lived an exact number of years, being born (or conceived) and dying on the same day of the year.

There are more fanciful associations. For instance, some have supposed that Adam and Eve were created on March 25. I ask the skeptical among my 3.6 Loyal Readers to suspend their unbelief momentarily for the sake of a good story. Supposing that there were an Adam and Eve, and that they were created on the same day (which even Genesis does not tell us), they lived long before the invention of fixed calendars; so that even if they knew the exact time of year at which they were born, and told their children, the information could not have been passed on to the authors of the Torah. The language of the Hebrew calendar is too new, the calendar itself too recent, to convey data directly from so remote a source. You could suppose that God gave the information to the author of that passage in Genesis; but then, Genesis does not tell us any exact date either. Even the most enthusiastic and credulous believer, I am afraid, has to surrender this particular story as a pious taradiddle.

In the Middle Ages in Christendom – not everywhere, not always, but certainly in the official records of the Church – March 25 was treated as New Year’s Day in commemoration of these events, real and legendary; with the odd result that March 24, 1066 (to pick a year not quite at random), was almost a year after March 25, 1066. This peculiar system persisted until Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar in 1582, bringing it back in step with the seasons, and incidentally moving the New Year back to January 1, the start of the old Roman consular year.

The Protestant and Orthodox countries stuck to the Julian calendar for some time yet; England went over to the new system in 1752, which by that time meant dropping eleven days from that year, so that March 25 of the old calendar corresponded with April 5 of the new. In 1800, the old and new calendars diverged by one more day, so the British Parliament made a special enactment that the tax year would start on April 6 instead; but they did not trouble themselves to move it to April 7 in 1900. That is why, to this day, the British tax year begins on the sixth day of April, to the lasting exasperation of accountants, taxpayers, and all tidy-minded persons.

‘Thinning’, as The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy calls it, does not only occur in fantasy fiction; we often find it in real life. The old Catholic New Year has thinned to a shadow, and all that remains of it now is a bizarre tax regulation in Britain, which hardly even pretends to be a Christian country. One of the few people to recall the old New Year and the old reasons for it was Tolkien, who deliberately chose that date for the defeat of Sauron and the beginning of the Fourth Age; so the reason for the date passes over into myths and old wives’ tales. But as Tolkien made Celeborn say—

Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.

Still, I bid you all a happy and glorious New Year in the Old Style (with Gregory’s correction), and in company of the old wives of Oxenford; and I add a prayer for any of my readers who may chance to be British, and in the clutches of the Inland Revenue. God bless you all.

Comments

  1. It may enhearten you to know that among my friends and relations a rather long email thread has been accumulating, touching on all these things–so there are still some in the current and rising generation who remember. (But we were brought up on Tolkien and Donne, for which we owe our parents innumerable thanks.)

  2. Hrodgar says:

    Huh, I thought the celebration of the Annunciation predated the Nativity and it was the other way around. Are there any reliable sources on the subject?

    • The Catholic Encyclopaedia says that the Feast of the Annunciation was unknown at the time of the Synod of Laodicea (372), by which time Christmas was an established feast:

      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01542a.htm

      According to the same article, the connection of the Annunciation and the creation of Adam (among other events) with March 25 goes back to a pseudo-Cyprianic work of the 3rd century, De Pascha Computus; which would seem to have been written by a fairly thorough crackpot, if you ask me. However, the December date for the Nativity is attested quite early and on other grounds.

      • Hrodgar says:

        Well, that answers that question. Probably should have thought to check the CE myself. Thanks.

  3. Hrodgar says:

    Connection with Tolkien is pretty neat, too. Never noticed that. But then, the last time I read Tolkien I was still a Protestant.

  4. Lovely. Thank you.

  5. Stephen K says:

    I am British, but I don’t have to fill in a tax return so 6th April has no significance for me, thankfully. 25th March does; yesterday was my 10th wedding anniversary. Choosing 25th March was deliberate.
    Until quite recently some older entities/ businesses in the UK prepared their annual accounts for the year to 25th March, rather than to 1st April (start of the UK financial year). This was called ‘Lady Day accounting’. I worked on what to my knowledge was the last entity to do this.

  6. This is wonderful, but it is worth mentioning that Tolkien took it a step further – not only did he have the Edain declare New Year’s Day to have been Sauron’s fall, which as you say is the 25th of March, the old New Year’s Day, he knew some people celebrated differently and held other traditions. And so: “And on the day of the New Year of the Elves, Celeborn and Thranduil met in the midst of the forest; and they renamed Mirkwood Eryn Lasgalen, The Wood of Greenleaves.” (Lord of the Rings, Appendix B: The Tale of Years: The Third Age). In that same Appendix, it is revealed to us that the New Year’s Day of the Elves is none other than April 6.
    Of course, that day is significant in many ways – upon it, Eorl the Young left for Calenardhon to join Gondor in the war against the Balchoth. Gandalf visited Bag End for the first time (not meeting Bilbo, but based on a talk with Holman Greenhand, decided Bilbo was the perfect choice for a burglar. Samwise Gamgee was born. And of course, the Mallorn tree planted in the Party Field by Sam began to bloom.

    This called (at least to my mind) another similar discrepancy. Easter (or the 25th of March) falls in the Spring, around the time the original holiday, Passover, falls – for Passover must always be ‘in the month of Spring’, as the Bible instructs us. The Sages in the Talmud have a stirring argument what month/day is the creation of the world – the month of Nissan (in which Passover falls, called in the Bible ‘The First Month’) or the Month of Tishrei (in the Bible the seventh month, known as ‘The Moon of the Steadfast’, today the first month of the Jewish Calendar, in which Sukkot and Yom Kippur fall). Of course, each sage also holds that besides the creation of the world, many other things fall in that month – from the births of the Patriarchs to the coming of the Messiah. I cannot help but feel there is more than random symmetry here.

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