It is the 31st of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
It is the last day of the year!
At least, it's the last day of the year as we count the time using a Gregorian calendar. It's a point worth making. We have adopted a solar calendar based on 365 common days divided into irregular months, and it has served us well. Fun fact: a small calculating error, similar to what caused us to ditch the old Julian calendar, will result in our calendar being one full day ahead of the solar year in 4049.
Calendars are constructs we agree to mark the passing of time. As long as we have recorded human history, we have seen people use different dating systems, whether lunar, solar or otherwise regulated. But regardless of the calendar, people seem to have the same impulse to recognize the end of one sequence and the beginning of another. Perhaps this is what makes January the obvious choice for the first month. The old Roman calendar started on the 1st of March, but that's because there was no January or February. Around 700 BC January and February were added. January is named for the Roman God Janus, the two-faced god of time, transitions, and doorways.
Other calendars have kept the first of the year closer to the beginning of spring or the vernal equinox. Many Christians refused to recognize the pagan on the 1st of January as the new year's beginning. Instead, they marked the first of the year with any number of significant holy days, from the 25th of December, the 1st of March, Annunciation Day (the 25th of March), or even more commonly, the first Sunday of Advent.
In 587, the Pope was worried that the Christian and pagan calendars had become indistinguishable. Thus, the Council of Tours forbade the practice of celebrating on the 1st of January. About a thousand years later, everything would be upset again with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII, fixed the Julian calendar's irregularities and placed the first of the year back on the 1st of January. But the Protestants were not having any of this new "popish" calendar. Like so many things in the 16th century, our attempt to fix stuff just led to more division.
But in more recent times, the day has been semi-sacralized by the spiritual descendants of those Evangelicals who rejected the calendar at first. The American Evangelical church has not historically followed the church calendar (ironically seeing it as too popish) and instead has given religious meaning to days otherwise known for parties and excess.
In the 1700s, the Moravians began to hold watch night parties on the 31st of December. This alternative to the revelry of the masses started to catch on, especially with those church bodies that held themselves distinct from the broader culture. These "watch nights" on the last day of the year would become especially poignant and popular in African American churches. On the 31st of December in 1862, the Watch Night service also became "Freedom's Eve." The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and would go into effect on the 1st of January. For those who would soon taste freedom, this would become the night to reflect on historical bondage.
If I can, on this last day of the year, give you listener, a good word. We have been freed in Christ. The proclamation has been made. We are living between the time of proclamation and ultimate reality. We, like Janus, look backward and forwards. We, like those slaves meeting on this night in 1862, are people who have been, and will be, liberated on account of the Gospel. This is why even in 2020, I have told you each and every day that "Everything is going to Be Ok."
The reading, the last of the year, comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson, his "Ring Out Wild Bells."
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced, for the 610th consecutive day, by Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember…the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.