In most of Europe during the Middle Ages, New Year's Day was celebrated on March 25. This date marked both the beginning of spring and the Feast of the Annunciation, a special day dedicated to Mary. Consequently, the holiday in Medieval Europe was a springtime celebration that was a mix of nature-based worship and the celebration of the divine feminine. Although the church officially changed the date of the new year to January 1 in the 16th century, in some places these older traditions are still followed.
Time of Renewal
Many ancient societies, including the Aztecs and the Egyptians, celebrated the new year in the springtime. For agriculturally based societies, spring represented the return of flowering plants and sunshine. It was the time of year to begin sowing the seeds that would be harvested later in the year. Although the Romans actually changed New Year's Day to January 1 in the early empire, most Medieval Europeans had reverted back to the earlier practice of celebrating the with the beginning of Spring.
The Feast of the Annunciation
Commemorating the day when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and advised that she would be the Mother of God, the Feast of the Annunciation was not only the most important Christian holiday of the Middle Ages, it was New Year's Day itself. Massive processions filled the streets, and offerings were made to shrines of Mary. These celebrations paid homage to the woman who -- like the earth itself -- received the seed in the springtime that would bear fruit as the birth of Jesus nine months later, at Christmas.
The Feast of Fools
In the later Middle Ages, a very controversial festival was celebrated by many on January 1. The Feast of Fools featured heavy drinking, gambling and even cross dressing. This celebration was also tied to nature-based activities, in this case the winter solstice and the Saturnalia, where leaders were mocked and society turned upside down. During the festival, slaves and servants openly criticized their masters, often dressing up like them in parody. The Feast of Fools disappeared in the 15th century after heavy suppression by the church.
Pope Gregory officially changed New Year's Day back to January 1 in 1582, but that did not mean that everyone in Europe gave up their traditional practices. Many modern European towns and villages still celebrate or have revived Medieval New Year's Day practices. In Florence, Italy, where live concerts and a huge procession to the Basilica of the Annunciation take place on March 25. Locals and tourists alike take part in these springtime festivities, which honor the feminine mother of God who gives birth to divinity year after year, just as nature renews itself and offers up its earthly abundance again and again.
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