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A Merry Medieval New Year


Donna Merkt, Curator of Education

As we close out 2018, following the wonderful Medieval gala, it seems appropriate to consider how folks celebrated the New Year in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it’s a bit confusing as the Medieval period was a time of turmoil in terms of telling time. 


Photo Credits: Detail from the Battle of Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Featured: edgewisewordsinn.wordpress.com

In the Middle Ages, the day actually began at sundown. So, what we call Friday evening would be considered Saturday evening to medieval people. This is why Christmas Eve is the night before Christmas Day. The length of hours also changed with the seasons, the time, and the length of the day. Sundials and marked candles were the most useful way to observe the hours of the day until the 14th century. 


There was also some confusion as to which calendar to employ. Many European areas operated off the Julian calendar proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, though it was changed occasionally as needed. Things got easier when the Catholic Church adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582 (but other areas adopted this calendar much later, some as late as the 20th century). For the common people, the year was basically a cycle of agricultural seasons and feast days for saints, with significant events (famines, epidemics, invasions, etc.) acting as markers.


To deepen this quandary, officials couldn’t agree which day was actually the first day of the New Year. The Julian calendar put that date as January 1. However, the medieval desire to see a religious significance in all things presented a number of choices. Which should be the first day of the New Year? December 25, the birth of Christ? March 25, the Annunciation of the Lord? Good Friday? Easter? It all depended on where you were. You could potentially celebrate the New Year more than once in one year if traveling across Europe.


Regardless of the confusion, when the New Year did approach medieval folks celebrated with relish. The Feast of Fools was a popular celebration in France, and included a mock ecclesiastical court, inverted hierarchy, and debauchery. In England, people exchanged gifts to bring fortune in the New Year. In Ireland, people banged on the walls to scare away evil spirits and scoured their homes to start the year off fresh. St. Sylvester’s slaying of the Leviathan was honored in Eastern European countries.


No matter how you choose to spend your New Year’s Eve and Day this year, we hope that it’s filled with fun, friends, and family, and that you and yours are safe, happy, and healthy. Thank you for being part of our Museum family and Happy New Year! 

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