Right in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas we get – well, the feast of Saints Melanie (sic) for one thing – but also New Year’s Day.
It was a really big thing in the Middle Ages, the day when people exchanged presents, rather than Christmas Day. And funnily enough, even pre-1752, when the year officially started with the feast of the Annunciation and the conception of Christ on March 25, people still adhered to the old Roman custom of beginning the year with celebrations at the start of January.
What we don’t know was whether they also made New Year’s resolutions. The notion of starting afresh at the beginning of a new year, like writing in a brand new diary, is psychologically compelling. The year seems like a blank canvas and it’s only human to try to decide how it’s going to look from the start.
Actually, there are many superstitions based on the notion that what you do on New Year’s Day sets the tone for the rest of the year. Water taken from a well that day is lucky. You shouldn’t wash clothes that day lest you wash a member of the family away. You should sweep dust from the fire into the hearth, not away from it. There were also lots of soothsaying customs, such as reading at random from the Bible to tell the future. All harmless – though it must be quite something to get a really horrible passage from Scripture when you dip into it at random for the purposes of divination – and driven by the notion that the first day of the year shapes what’s to come.
New Year’s resolutions are a version of that impulse, to begin as we mean to go on. Most of us make them; most of us break them; and the rapidity with which it happens never puts us off. But the point is that there is absolutely no reason why we have to make resolutions to be nicer, better, thinner and lovelier on one day out of 365 simply because it’s January 1. There remain another 364 on which we can decide that this is the beginning of the rest of our lives, and make resolutions accordingly.
Indeed, there’s something liberating about the idea that, no matter how often we fail, we can decide that, starting next Monday, we shall be better. We can exalt that Monday, and turn it into the day we take up Tai Chi or give up pipe tobacco or get to grips with Kant, even if it happens to be October 27 rather than January 1. Catholics have rather a good way of doing it, of course. When you go to Confession, you do have that psychologically liberating sense that you’re nice and clean now, and you can try to keep it up. You’ve just confessed to a whole set of sins that probably characterise quite a bit of your conduct. And in general, the sheer sense of lightness you get after Confession is a good basis on which to start all over again, not least by trying, as we say in the act of contrition, “never to offend Thee again”.
So, by all means let’s make resolutions on New Year’s Day, but let’s carry on making them afterwards. It’s not all or nothing, you know. The other thing about New Year is that it’s often the start of a diet and fitness regime – and a worse time for giving up starchy carbs it’s hard to imagine. I think we should take a very hard line on this.
New Year’s Day is a festival, but it’s only part of the crescendo of festivity for the Twelve Days of Christmas that concludes on January 6 for the Epiphany. We should be getting into the swing of festivity, not giving up on it. Our Christian duty is clear: to carry on having parties, dinners, games of charades, and drinking and eating lovely things, for another five days. Starting a diet while we’re still in the Christmas season is un-Christian.
And by terminating the festivities on January 1 rather than sustaining the momentum until the 6th and then keeping it up right until Candlemas on February 2, we make for a really dreary January.
The Church nowadays doesn’t help. By cravenly shifting the feast to the nearest Sunday it upends the liturgical significance of the Twelve Days so as not to inconvenience people who can’t be bothered to come to Mass on a weekday. Well, make the Epiphany something other than a holy day of obligation, if you really must. The rest of us should just ignore the bishops. As resolutions go, a resolve to carry on having fun can’t be bad.
Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard
This article first appeared in the Christmas double issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here