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Like other Christian festivals, the celebration of New Years Day in the West started before the church came into existence.

At first, the Romans celebrated the beginning of the new year on March 1, not January 1. Julius Caesar instituted New Year's Day on January 1 to honor Janus, the two-faced god who looks backwards into the old year and forwards into the new. The custom of "New Years resolutions" began in this earliest period, as the Romans made resolutions with a moral flavor: mostly to be good to others.

When Rome took on Christianity as its official faith, the Christians kept New Years Day. Only, they traded the vaguely moral emphasis for a practice of fasting and prayer aimed at living the New Year in the New Life of Christ. Soon, however, the new year celebration reverted to March 1, and this early emphasis on spiritual things dissolved.

Or rather, it shifted to a new celebration on January 1. Beginning in the middle of the sixth century, parts of the church began to set aside January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision, commemorating Jesus' circumcision. As with other Jewish boy babies, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21, "when eight days were accomplished").

But the pagans had apparently spoiled January 1 for many Christians: the Roman church did not accept this feast day until the 11th century.

It was finally in 1752, when Britain and its possessions adopted the Gregorian calendar, that January 1 again came to be recognized and celebrated as the first day of the year.

Some Christians, however, still hesitated to celebrate the day. The Puritans, for example, were leery of the associations of January 1 with the pagan god Janus—they preferred not even to say the name of the month, referring to it ...

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December 2003

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