Julians, Gregorians, and The April Fools

Forewarned is forearmed! So be careful out there! Today, April 1st, is the one day of the year when people have free rein and permission to pull pranks, tell lies and cause general mischief, all in the name of fools.

In the Tarot card deck, the Fool is card zero. The Fool is the very beginning. He is optimistic, open to all possibilities, and ready for adventure. He is too happy and unaware to have any inhibitions or sense of danger. I like to think of April Fool’s Day as a celebration of the Tarot’s Fool — a day of joy, lightheartedness, new beginnings and clean slates.

Have you ever wondered about the origins of April Fool’s Day? It seems kind of crazy. Who would dream up such a thing and why? Although historians cannot agree on any one particular source for the day, there are some clues as to how this holiday came to be.

Calendar Clash

A lot of our weird customs trace back to the Middle Ages, and April Fool’s Day is no different. It seems the confusion and subsequent celebration of pranks started out with two simple calendars.

Throughout a good deal of the Middle Ages, most of Europe operated on the Julian Calendar. This was a calendar instituted by Julius Caesar (and named after him) in the year 46 BCE. The Romans had huge domination in much of Europe up to the 6th century, and even after that, their influence prevailed for hundreds of years. As a result, the Julian Calendar was kept in practice until 1582. It was then that the ruling pope, Pope Gregory XIII, instituted the Gregorian Calendar (also named after himself.)

According to Pope Gregory and his council, the Julian Calendar did not align well with the rhythms of the universe. The Julian Calendar had almost 366 days, and it did not correctly reflect the actual time it takes the Earth to circle once around the Sun. The new Gregorian Calendar basically shortened the year to include less leap days, and made a more accurate timing of equinoxes and solstices. Neither calendar was perfect, but it was believed that the Gregorian Calendar was more accurate.

There was, however one notable difference in the Gregorian Calendar, which effected everyone’s life — the designation of the beginning of the year. In the Julian Calendar, New Year’s Day had been celebrated sometime between March 25th and April 1st. In the new Gregorian Calendar, New Year’s Day was to be celebrated on January 1st.

That is a huge change! Medieval people loved their holidays! It was a break from their dreary, work laden lives. Keeping track of the feast days was important to them, in the same way keeping track of our vacation days is important to us.

Jesus, Mary and Janus

Interestingly, Julius Caesar had actually chose January 1st as New Year’s Day when he originally formulated his calendar. January was the month of the god Janus, who had two heads and hence, the ability to see the past, and future, at the same time.

It was only logical that a god who could see both the mistakes of the past and the possibilities of the future should have a month in which the new year would be celebrated. All very mystical…

Coincidentally, the Romans at that time also had a week of their own form of “April Fools” — this was a holiday called “Hilaria” which was celebrated in the last week of March and into April 1st. This feast day was meant to honor Cybele, a wise mother goddess who had a cult following. “Hilaria” is the Latin word for “joyful”, and of course, also the origin of the English word “hilarious.” During this time, people dressed up in costumes and played tricks. Nothing was off limits, and often magistrates and folks in high places were the targets of jokes.

Statue of Cybele, 1st C., Rome

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, some changes were made. Christians began to think of of the January date, honoring Janus, as too Pagan in origin. Instead, they wanted New Year’s Day celebrated with some symbolism of Christianity. They began to celebrate New Year’s day on March 25, which was the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. The Annunciation also signified new beginnings, as this was the day the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would give birth to Jesus. Mary, of course, became pregnant. (Allegedly without sexual intercourse.)

Annunciation by Adrian Van de Velde, 15th c

If we do the math, we see that Jesus was born on December 25th, nine months later.

Mary can be thought of as the Christian equivalent of a mother goddess, similar to Cybele. She also has somewhat of a cult following within the Catholic church.

All things are connected.

** Side note: The Annunciation is NOT to be confused with the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8th, signifies the conception of Mary herself, who was conceived through normal intercourse, but without Original Sin. (All humans, according to Christianity, are born with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Mary apparently was given a pass, since she was to be the mother of Jesus. ) But I digress…

Back to April Fools.

Peasantry and Pageantry

Ironically, when Pope Gregory made his new calendar, he decided that January 1st, after all, would be a better new year’s date. This raises a bit of suspicion, and I wonder why a Catholic pope would change the holiday back to a month honoring of a Pagan god. Maybe the Pope actually liked Janus. Who knows? But that’s what he decided.

So now, all of Europe had a brand new calendar, and a brand new New Year’s Day.

Needless to say, news traveled slow back in 1582. No electricity, no internet. It took a while for all Christian countries to catch on to the Pope’s decree. If you were a peasant living out in the sticks, the news might not reach you for years. These country bumpkins, who had no idea that the year had been changed, continued to celebrate the New Year around March 25th. Since Feast Day celebrations typically lasted around a week, and especially since the days were not very well mapped out, the peasants were often still celebrating, or at least adjusting to the new year, on around April 1st.

But alas! These backwater farmers were out of the loop! They should have known that the new year had already started, way back in January. They became thought of as silly, gullible, foolish people. They’d believe anything! They were pushovers, slow on the uptake, naive, unsophisticated. It would be easy to trick them. They were given the nickname “April Fools.” This pastime of trickery was, apparently, so much fun that in time it evolved to the “April Fool’s Day” of modern times.

And now, thanks to misinformation, slow communication, and a steady devotion to gods and goddesses, all of us get to celebrate and act like idiots, too.

For your viewing pleasure: The Safety Dance, by Men Without Hats. A perfect April Fools song!

Have a safe and happy April Fool’s Day! And remember to honor the spirit of innocence, the daring soul, the boundary pusher, the childlike Fool that dwells within all of us.

New Year’s Traditions and Superstitions

With a New Year right on the horizon, we hope to conjure up the luckiest, healthiest, most prosperous one ever!  Fortunately, there are plenty of superstitions to help us along the way. If you’d like to know more about the weird stuff people all over the world do, read on! 

Want to get rich in the coming new year? Try eating some pickled herring at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This practice comes from Poland, Germany and Scandinavia. It is believed that the silver color of the fish, representing real silver, will help you acquire money.

Speaking of silver, another Slavic tradition holds that if you wash your hands with a piece of silver on New Year’s Day, you will be prosperous for the year to come. You can also fill the sink with coins and water, then wash your face with the coin saturated mix.

In Romania, it was believed that the object you have in your hand when the clock strikes midnight will indicate the most important plan of your life in the coming year.  Following this line of thinking, if you have money in your hand, you should be prosperous. If you are holding your loved one’s hand, the new year will see you happy in personal relationships. If you are toasting with a glass in your hand, your cup runneth over – it will be an all around joyful year.  If you are eating something yummy, you will never go hungry. This tradition should allow a lot of room for creativity — so pick something that is important to you personally — and grab it before midnight 🙂

The Romanians also believed that a wish you make at the stroke of midnight will most likely come true!

From the American South comes another food tradition — Hoppin’ John.  Originating from French, Caribbean and African influences, Hoppin’ John is a stew made with pork, black eyed peas and greens, said to bring good luck and prosperity.

Why is it called “Hoppin’ John”?  It is said this stew is so good that children, when being served, can’t sit still in their seats, and John “comes hopping” when his wife cooks it.  For a great Hoppin’ John recipe click HERE.

If you don’t have time to prepare the entire stew, at least take in some green food on New Year’s Day. Spinach, collard greens, kale, or green peas will do. All of them are said to represent money and ensure prosperity.

But New Year’s Eve is not all fun and games. There are many superstitions regarding bad luck as well.

On New Year’s Day, make sure nothing leaves your house. This means NOTHING, not even garbage. Putting things out of the house is indicative of rejecting possessions, so if you throw things out, you just may lose something dear to you.

It is bad luck to hang a new calendar on the wall before the new year actually begins, so wait until Jan 1st to hang your calendar.

Also to be avoided – washing clothes and washing hair. It is believed you will ‘wash out’ important things or people in your life. I once heard a story about someone who did laundry on New Years Day and had a loved one die shortly after, so take heed!

It is definitely bad luck to take your Christmas tree down before January 6th, Feast of the Epiphany.  (During this time, our ancestors were practicing the Twelve Days of Christmas — receiving partridges in a pear tree and so forth…) So leave that tree up! On New Year’s Eve, take all the gold, silver and gemstones you own, and place them under the tree. Leave them there until January 2nd. This presentation of precious metals and jewels will ensure that you will be gifted and prosperous in the year to come.

Be careful about whom you invite into your home on New Year’s Day!  In Scotland, it was believed that the first person to cross your threshold after the stroke of midnight should definitely be a tall dark handsome man.  Blondes, redheads and women were considered bad luck.  Yes, it sounds biased…  However, this belief originated in Medieval times, when Scotland was susceptible to Viking invasions. The last ones they wanted showing up on their doorsteps were blonde Scandinavian savages, armed with blades and shields.

To make things even luckier, the Scots also hold that the dark haired man ought to bring coal, salt, shortbread and whiskey – all essential elements for prosperity.

Romania, too, believed that a woman should not be your first guest on New Year’s Day. Women were considered bad luck, but men ensured good fortune. (This probably originates from back when women were expected to have a dowry in order to be wed — and men collected the dowry.) So, invite the guys over!

In Brazil,  it is traditional to throw white flowers in the ocean. These are considered an offering to the water goddess Yemoja, who is said to control the seas. Offering her flowers will ensure her blessings for the coming year.

If you are looking to have a baby in 2019, Italians hold that wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve will help. This is because the color red is a symbol of fertility. Not to mention, a pretty and sexy color too. So bring on the Victoria’s Secrets!

The Greeks have an interesting custom involving pomegranates. The pomegranate symbolizes fertility, life, and abundance. Just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, it is customary for Greeks to smash a pomegranate against the door of their house — and it is said that the number of pomegranate seeds that end up scattered is directly correlated with the amount of good luck to come.

I have heard of a custom similar to this, but the pomegranates can be scooped into your mouth, and the seeds spit out. Count your future blessings by the number of seeds you do not swallow!

Speaking of swallowing, the Russians have an unusual custom. Folks write their wishes down on a piece of paper, burn them with a candle, and drink the subsequent ashes in a glass of champagne. (Sorry Russia, this one doesn’t sound safe to me!)

Many Pagan traditions hold the custom of writing your desires on paper, burning them in a cauldron, then scattering them to the wind – thus putting all your desires out to the universe. Doing it right after the stroke of midnight is considered extremely powerful.

In Chile, necromancy takes center stage.  New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day Masses are held, not in churches, but in cemeteries. It is believed that this custom literally invites the spirits of the dead to join their families in festivities.

You may have tried kissing under the mistletoe, but in Ireland they take it one step further. It is customary for single women to sleep with a mistletoe under their pillow on New Year’s Eve. The magical mistletoe will cause them to dream of, and then find, their future husbands.

In my home town of Chicago, we have our own little tradition, called “The Polar Bear Plunge”. This is organized officially by the Chicago Polar Bear Club. Each New Year’s Day, they put on bathing suits and jump in Lake Michigan. Yes, our weather here is c-c-c-cold, and this tradition is c-c-c-crazy. However, Polar Bear Plungers do it for a good reason. Each swimmer recruits sponsors to pay him/ her money for this bravery, and then the money is given to people in need. Since its initial plunge in 2001, the Club has raised over $270,000!

Whatever you do this New Year’s Eve, have a safe, loving and healthy celebration!

New Year’s Day/ U2

 

new-year-4

Hard to believe it has been thirty-three years since Bono & company penned this song for their 1983 album ‘War’.  Although it was originally written for Lech Walesa and the Polish Solidarity movement, I find a lot of relevance in this song as applied to the issues of today.

I have always loved U2.  Once upon a time several years ago I was lucky enough to meet Bono and The Edge at a loading dock in Chicago. They struck me as kind and considerate gentlemen.

Hope you are having a fantastic New Year’s Day!