Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and Walter Raleigh would not have wished anyone a happy New Year on this date. I don't know whether they were curmudgeons or not, but the reason they would not have made the standard jokes about New Year resolutions is quite simple. The first day of January was not the 'new year'.
For Britain the January celebration did not start until as late as 1752, except for the Scots who had the foresight to start their January New Year from 1600. From the 12th century until 1752 the new year began on 25 March, Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation. This also tied up with the worldwide and ancient festivities of spring, the Vernal Equinox, a time of rebirth and renewal.
Britain was quite late in changing to this calendar. It is known as the Gregorian calendar, which was named after the person who invented it, Pope Gregory XIII. This was in 1582. Even before most countries adopted the Gregorian calendar they had started to celebrate the new year in January. Some people actually celebrated new year in both January and March. Confusing times!
Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Prussia, Holland and France all beat us to it in taking on the Gregorian calendar.
I can see the advantage of celebrating in March when the weather is warmer, days are longer and there are pretty daffodils to brighten the festivities. But does a shift in the New Year really matter?
I think it does. At least for the historian. January was the month the English king Charles was beheaded for treason. All the text books used in schools give the date as 30 January 1649. I remember this date because it is a topic that I have taught every year since I became a teacher. I did not question it.
However, fairly recently I was researching the English Civil War for a play I was writing, and was horrified to find a primary source that gave the date of his death at 30 January 1648. The evidence was clear before me. So had I been teaching the wrong date all these years?
Well, thankfully, no. The original Parliamentary record said 1648 as the year started in March, not January. Since then historians have adjusted all events and birthdays. At least for fairly modern history.
The Anglo Saxons celebrated January as the New Year because they had just come through the darkest days of winter and the new moon signalled the new year. And yet there are some inconsistencies in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, for example, and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There are disagreements about dates by about a year or so (Battle of Winwaed is given as 654 and 655 according to different sources). It could be that their work simply was not checked for detail - the spellings were quite random even on the same page.
The ancient Britons (such as the Celtic and Gaelic peoples) marked the four seasons and many suggest that the winter festival of Samhain, on 31 October/1 November, was also the new year.
Some Egyptians and Ethiopians celebrate new year in September, and Chinese celebrate in February. South East Asians celebrate in April, as do Hindus who traditionally recognise spring as the new year.
At least we know that it is 2019 more or less everywhere around the world. Unless a different number system is used...
However, whenever the new year is I, like a lot of people, look forward. I hope to maintain my good health and wish that for everyone, too.
Oh yes, and to take more walks in forests and not to eat too much trifle. And read more.