Celebrating New Year: Janus, a Pope and the Free Presbyterians

I've just been out for a New Year stroll around my attractive little town. I came across the local Free Presbyterians, emerging from their New Year lecture. Their aversion to Christmas perhaps renders the new year a more attractive focus for their joy inexpressible. Clad in black suits, black ties and black hats, I had not the courage to tell these grave and godly folk that their date for the new year was selected by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Protestant nations refused to follow the papal lead, and retained the Julian calendar with its new year beginning on 25th March. Thus, Charles I was beheaded in January 1649 according to our history books, but it occurred in January 1648 according to contemporaries. Protestant Germany made the switch in 1700, and Britain and her colonies in 1752. To make up the time lapse caused by the discrepancy of leap years, eleven days had to be lost. In Benjamin Franklin’s words, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14”.

Julius Caesar, founder of the Julian calendar, in fact selected January for the new year (Christendom rejected this until 1582 on account of its paganism). It was named after the Roman god Janus, the deity with two heads, simultaneously looking backwards and forwards. He was in charge of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings.

Our own observance of the new year involved a Jacob’s Join supper and Victorian parlour games, such as the minister’s cat and pass the parcel. At 11pm, we moved into the chapel wherein we sung praise to God and encouraged each other with testimony. I preached on Isaiah 40:

The everlasting God, the Lord,

The Creator of the ends of the earth,

Neither faints nor is weary.

His understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the weak,

And to those who have no might He increases strength.

Even the youths shall faint and be weary,

And the young men shall utterly fall,

But those who wait on the Lord

Shall renew their strength;

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.

At midnight, we were found in prayer, commending this new year to the God of Heaven. We closed with Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken. Non-believers must have thought spending New Year in a church a strange thing. The final verse of the hymn addresses such concerns:

Saviour, since of Zion's city

I through grace a member am,

let the world deride or pity,

I will glory in Thy name.

Fading are the worldling’s pleasures,

all his boasted pomp and show;

solid joys and lasting treasures

none but Zion's children know.

May God richly bless your 2018.

Picture: Roman denarius coin circa 119BC showing Janus, found in Dorset. Credit: Dr Caitlin Green