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.