Published: 17-03-2010, 08:51

Kalends (Calends)

Kalends, the Roman new year festival, began on January 1 and lasted until January 5. The Romans celebrated Kalends in much the same way they did Saturnalia. Early Christian writers condemned the carousing crowds. Nevertheless, some of the customs associated with Kalends were eventually absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.
In 45 B.C. the Roman emperor Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar (called the Julian calendar) which shifted the date of the Roman new year from March 25 to January 1. The Romans called the festival that began on this day “kalends” (or “calends”). They also used this word to refer to the first day of each month. On this day Roman officials posted the calendar for each month. The English word “calendar” comes from the old Latin term “kalends.”

The Romans celebrated Kalends by decorating their homes and temples with lights and greenery. They exchanged gifts with one another as well. A sprig of greenery taken from the groves dedicated to the goddess Strenia was considered a very traditional gift. Later the Romans added cakes and honey (symbolizing a “sweet” new year), and coins (symbolizing wealth) to the roster of traditional new year gifts. The Romans called these gifts strenae, after Strenia. This Latin word finds echo in the modern French word for new year’s gift, étrenne. In addition to exchanging gifts with friends and family, many Romans offered gifts and vota, wishes for prosperity, to the emperor. The mad emperor Caligula (12 A.D.-41 A.D.) went so far as to require these gifts and good wishes, and stood outside the palace to collect them in person.
Other Kalends customs included fortune-telling and informal masquerades in which men cavorted through the streets dressed as animals or as women. Their bold and sometimes rude antics entertained some onlookers and outraged others. Some researchers trace the origins of mumming back to this Kalends custom. During the Kalends festival slaves enjoyed time off and even sat down with their masters to play dice. Feasting, drinking, and merrymaking rounded out the festival. Certain superstitions also attached themselves to the holiday. The Romans believed bad luck would follow any who lent fire or iron to a neighbor at this time.
Kalend’s Eve celebrations resembled our own New Year’s Eve festivities. A fourth-century Greek scholar named Libanius (314-393 A.D.) wrote that almost everyone stayed up on Kalend’s Eve to usher in the new year with drinking, singing, and revelry. Instead of spending the evening at home, crowds of people roamed through the streets, returning to their houses near daybreak to sleep off the night’s overindulgence. Coins were distributed among the people on the first day of the new year. Indeed, all Kalends gift giving took place on the first of January. On January second most people stayed at home and played dice. Races entertained the populace on the third of January. Kalends festivities wound down on the fourth of January and finally came to a close on the fifth.

Similarity to Christmas
Libanius left future generations a lengthy description of the attitudes and activities that characterized the celebration of the Roman new year. This description reveals many striking similarities between Kalends and contemporary Christmas celebrations:
The festival of Kalends ... is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend... Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow... People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.... The highroads and footpaths are covered with whole processions of laden men and beasts.... As the thousand flowers which burst forth everywhere are the adornment of Spring, so are the thousand presents poured out on all sides, the decoration of the Kalends feast. It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, to breath the air of freedom... Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands [Miles, 1990,168-69].

Christian Opposition
Many of the customs and attitudes associated with Kalends and Saturnalia gradually attached themselves to the celebration of Christmas. Ironically, this transfer took place in spite of the overwhelming rejection of these holidays and their customs by Christian officials. For centuries Christian authorities condemned the drunkenness, disorder, fortune-telling, gambling, and masquerading associated with the celebration of Kalends. Nevertheless, these customs proved remarkably difficult to stamp out, even after Christianity became the dominant religion and Christmas an important winter holiday. One researcher has counted at least forty separate Church documents containing official denunciations of the kinds of midwinter masquerades associated with Kalends. These documents range from the fourth to the eleventh centuries and come from authorities in many European lands as well as north Africa and the Near East.
Church officials urged their followers to abandon riotous pagan practices and instead to observe the day with thoughtfulness and sobriety. In 567 the second provincial Council of Tours tried to counteract the still popular festivities surrounding Kalends by ordering Christians to fast and do penance during the first few days of the new year. In the seventh century Church officials made a new effort to reclaim the day from pagan celebrations. They introduced a new Christian holy day, the Feast of the Circumcision, to be celebrated on January 1. By the time Kalends finally withered away, however, the peoples of Europe had already transferred many of its customs to the Christmas season.