Monday, January 1, 2018


Happy New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Lord 2018!

This first month of the year, January (in Latin, Ianuarius), is thought to have been named after the Latin word for door (ianua) and/or after Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions in the Roman pantheon. The original Roman calendar consisted curiously of only 10 months – from March through December - totaling 304 days. Around 713 BC, King Numa Pompilius (successor of Romulus) supposedly added the winter months of January and February to complete a full year. At some point January replaced March as the first month of the Roman calendar, and each year came to be identified by the names of the two consuls, who took office on January 1. 

Although medieval calendars still followed the Roman fashion with twelve columns from January to December, during the Middle Ages March 25 was perhaps the most common date for counting the new year until January 1 became the unquestioned New Year's Day once and for all with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century (but in the English-speaking world only in the 18th century).

In the Christian calendar, January 1 is, of course, the Octave Day of Christmas, on which day, according to Luke 2:21, Jesus was circumcised and given his name. According to the Roman Martyologyon January 1, 404, Saint Almachius, was martyred by the gladiators for saying, "Today is the Octave of our Lord's birth; put an end to the worship of idols, and abstain from unclean sacrifices." In antiquity, the Octave Day of Christmas was celebrated as the feast of Mary's Motherhood. While the liturgy of the day retained its Marian emphasis, the feast changed its name over the centuries to commemorate either the Circumcision of Jesus or simply the Octave Day. The new (1969) Roman Calendar of Paul VI restored it as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.

The liturgical highpoint of January is, however, the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6, but since the adoption of Paul VI's calendar transferred in the U.S. to the Sunday after January 1 (this year January 7). In our contemporary secular calendar, January 1 more or less marks the end of the holiday season, but Christian cultures have traditionally continued to celebrate at least until the Epiphany, which is in fact the oldest of all the liturgical feasts of the Christmas season. 

The eve of Epiphany (January 5) is the 12th Day of Christmas. But when Epiphany is anticipated or postponed do we get fewer or more Days of Christmas? And where Epiphany is largely ignored, do the "12 Days" disappear too?

For those who still follow the Julian Calendar, January 6 is December 24, Christmas Eve, and Epiphany doesn't come until Gregorian January 19. About 50 years ago, I had occasion to attend a January 19 Epiphany liturgy at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York. It was quite impressive, complete with baptisms. (In the Eastern Churches, Epiphany is the primary baptismal feast, as Easter is  int he Western tradition.)

The secular world takes little or no notice of Epiphany. But January has its own secular observances. Thus, the last Monday of January is observed as Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day!

(Photo: January from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

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