Happy New Year – but not yet

Festa del Redentore - boats and fireworks

First, a very Happy New Year to all of you.

The Venetians have celebrated the New Year on January 1st only since 1798. Before, during the period of the Republic of Venice, the official new year started on March 1st.

Venetian Stories

This post is an issue of our newsletter — Venetian Stories — which goes out every few weeks, to keep in touch and share stories and titbits from and about Venice and its history.

The beginnings of Venice

The origins of the Republic of Venice are not entirely clear, but they’re found sometimes in the late 600s or early 700s, with some fairly direct lines back to ancient Rome.

When the Roman Empire split in two parts in the early 300s, the Italian peninsula passed to the Western half of the empire. That included the province Regio X Venetia et Histria, which was much of the NE of Italy and a bit of Croatia. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the province mostly passed to the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium.

In the earliest periods of Venetian history, the nascent state of Venice was formally under Constantinople rule. Invading Lombards, followed by the Franks under Charlemagne, almost entirely expelled the Byzantines from the province, but the coastal lagoon area, often called Venetia Maritima, remained in the Byzantine sphere of influence. The Treaty of Aachen in 812 formally confirmed this separation.

Venetia Maritima saw an influx of often wealthy refugees from the lost territories on the mainland. This was the beginning of the Venetian state, initially under Byzantium, then gradually more independent.

While most other western European states were the result of invaders creating new polities on conquered territory, the Venetian state instead represented a continuity with the past, going back to Classical Rome.

The Roman Calendar

The earliest Roman calendars were a bit of a mess.

There are elements of a lunar calendar, with many adaptations for the solar year, which is not a simple multiple of lunar months. Politics played a part as well, as the Roman consuls both regulated the calendar and had their terms defined by the calendar.

There was therefore ample space for manipulation and abuse of the calendar.

The first known Roman calendar had ten months of thirty or thirty-one days, and a variable length unnamed winter period. The months were Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. They’re named after Mars, Aphrodite, Maia and Juno, followed by numbered months, five to ten.

So the names and the numbers matched. September was actually the seventh month, and December was the tenth month of the year, unlike today.

Later the unnamed winter period was split into the months Januarius, Februarius and occasionally a thirteenth intercalary (leap) month to align the calendar with the solar year. January is named after the god Janus (god of doorways, transitions and change), while February gets its name from the februa, an instrument used for the Lupercalia which was celebrated in that month. The intercalary month never had a name.

When Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, creating the Julian Calendar, the start of the year moved from March to January, but the leap day remained in February. It was still somehow the last month of the year, where such an adjustment could be made.

March or January?

Just because somebody powerful decides to change things, doesn’t mean everybody just meekly follows along. Old habits die hard, and many people cling on to traditions and old ways of doing things. Cultural change doesn’t happens overnight.

In agricultural societies it is natural for the year to start with the growing season, in spring. The early Roman calendar probably started in spring because the original need for a calendar was agricultural. That most likely also explains why the calendar left out the winter period, which wasn’t important for agriculture.

The main driver of change wasn’t as much the Julian calender reform, as Christianity and the decision to place Christmas overlapping with the Roman Saturnalia and the winter solstice.

The birth of a Saviour naturally became the start of an epoch. Just as most Christian cultures count the years from the birth of Jesus, it makes equally sense to make the year start with the supposed date of birth of the Saviour.

Due to the imprecision of the Julian calendar, and the adoption at different times of the Gregorian calendar, the date of Christmas varies between cultures, countries and churches. However, celebrating the New Year on December 25th or January 1st became quite common.

Yet the change was slow.

New Year twice a year

In spite of most of western Europe gradually opting for January 1st or December 25th for the celebration of the new year, in Venice the state obstinately stuck with March 1st.

The tradition never changed until the fall of the Republic in April 1797.

However, everybody else in Europe celebrated New Year in January, and Venice lived in close contact with many other nations, so it became quite common for Venetians to do the same.

This lead to the odd situation of the state and much of the population celebrating New Year on separate dates.

Festa del Redentore - boats and fireworks

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