While Dec. 31 might seem like it’s always been a time for partying and celebrating new beginnings, in colonial Jamestown, the new year wasn’t even celebrated until March.
“It was actually a really confusing time because the English hadn’t switched to the Gregorian calendar and were still using the Julian calendar but most of the world had already switched and celebrated in January,” said Lara Templin, assistant interpretive program manager at Jamestown Settlement.
The English didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar — the calendar used today — until 1752. Before that time, early colonists in Jamestown didn’t celebrate the new year until March 25, which is the day traditionally known as the annunciation.
But don’t worry, residents in Jamestown still had their own fun in January.
Dec. 31 and Jan.1 were part of the 12 days of Christmas celebration, so settlers and colonists would continue celebrating with a number of traditions.
One of the most popular was the tradition of Wassailing, which Templin described as a more aggressive form of caroling.
“It’s like in that song where they say we won’t leave until you give us figgy pudding,” she said. “Basically people would go around singing loudly at your neighbor until they gave you some food. Then you’d move along to the next house.”
Food and singing is a part of Christmas celebrations that have survived to current traditions, even if they’ve changed a bit over the years.
For example, the colonists participated in games such as bobbing for apples—but with a twist.
Templin said the game had a more dangerous aspect sometimes where an apple would be tied to the end of a stick and that a lit candle would be tied to the other end while the player tries to grab the apple with their mouth. Fun games also included wrestling or games of strength.
“This was really the only time of year people got a break,” Templin said. “So people were looking to have a good time.”
But Dec. 31 wasn’t all about parties and fun. For the Scottish, the beginning of January was celebrated as Hogmanay where the main purpose was to prepare and organize the household for the new season. This meant cleaning the house, returning borrowed items and paying off debts.
“Really, I think it also might’ve been convenient for them to have a day designated to cleaning the house because it’s in the middle of two weeks of partying and, well, that’s going to cause a bit of a mess,” Templin said.
However, the Scottish adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1600, nearly 150 years before the English. Templin said this made trade and other daily tasks difficult, especially because King James I was trying to unite the two countries.
But once the calendar changed for the English, colonists began celebrating the start of a new year in January. However, the change didn’t create much of a difference in traditions and celebrations because it still fell during Christmastide.
“It was just an extra excuse to party,” Templin said. “Really this time of year was always a celebration for grownups having a good time and partying, so maybe it is closer to our modern New Year’s Eve than we realize.”