There was a time when the Roman calendar began in March, but various updates of the calendar resulted in January 1 becoming the start of the New Year for Ancient Romans, just as it is for us today.
The Romans called it Iani Kalendai – the Kalends of January. The month is named January after the God Janus – a two-faced deity. We use the term “Janus” to describe someone who is two-faced in the sense of not trustworthy or not sticking to their word. But Janus had two faces because he was the god of beginnings and endings.
The New Year in Ancient Rome was thought of as a time of new beginnings – and an end to any negativity experienced in the previous year. With the global Covid crisis, this New Year could not be more in tune with the idea of Janus being the god of beginnings and endings. Janus means “gate” or “door”, so on January 1 we are metaphorically walking through a door to the future.
The Romans would have marked January 1 with a sacrifice to the god Janus, as well as other household gods, known as the Penates. Like today, New Year was a festive time and Ancient Romans would have felt optimistic about the year ahead. They would hope that Janus would bring them peace.
Gifts would also be exchanged between friends, family – and even business associates. The sort of gifts given for New Year in Ancient Rome would be coins – or honey or dates, our equivalent of sweets or chocolates.
Public drunkenness in Rome was frowned upon – Ancient Romans liked to think they could hold their liquor! So the public displays of intoxication we sometimes see today would be socially unacceptable, even though some might be over-the-limit on New Year’s Day in Ancient Rome!
The priesthood would also mark the start of New Year with animal sacrifices, usually a heifer. This would be part of a New Year procession from Capitoline Hill and along Via Sacra in the Forum.
The hearth was the focus of the home in Ancient Rome and was governed by the goddess Vesta.
Part of New Year celebrations might involve sacred rituals over the hearth, including using saffron or incense as a blessing by sprinkling it on the hearth.
It is easy to see similarities between how we celebrate New Year now and how the Ancient Romans marked the start of the New Year. Winter in Ancient Rome was also a quiet period in agriculture until the warmer weather of spring – just as it is for us now.
Let us hope that 2021 will bring us all peace, good health and optimism!
Felice Anno Nuovo – Happy New Year!