Why Does the New Year Start on January 1?

Bychykhin_Olexandr/iStock via Getty Images
Bychykhin_Olexandr/iStock via Getty Images

Way back when, the Romans had a god named Janus. He was the god of doors and gates and had two faces — one looking forward and one looking back. Julius Caesar thought it would be appropriate for January, Janus' namesake month, to be the doorway to a new year, and when he created the Julian calendar, he made January 1 the first day of the year (this also put the calendar year in line with the consular year, as new consuls also took office that day).

For Caesar, the Julian calendar was a political tool and weapon. As the Roman armies conquered new lands, the Empire often gave its new subjects some freedom in retaining certain religious and social customs. After the calendar was created, though, it was used in every corner of the Empire, not just for consistency, but to remind all citizens of Roman authority and Caesar's power.

After Rome fell and Christianity spread through Europe, the celebration of the new year was seen as pagan (the Romans, after all, had observed the new year's first day by having in drunken orgies), so the first day of the year was moved to a more agreeable date to Christianize it. Some countries started their year on March 25, the day Christians commemorate the announcement to Mary that she miraculously was pregnant. Other countries used Christmas Day, December 25, and others used Easter Sunday, no matter what date it fell on. Often, this change only applied to the government calendar's. In common usage, January 1 was still the first day of the year, as regular non-clergy, non-royal folks didn't t see a need to change it.

Change the Date

This calendrical chaos worked for a while, but a frustrated pope would put an end to it during the Middle Ages. An error in Caesar's calendar had caused the Julian year to become misaligned with the solar year. By 1582, the difference had grown to 10 days. Over the years, the Spring Equinox (and, with it, Easter) kept getting moved up, and Pope Gregory XIII was tired of having to re-set the holiday. Gregory devised a new calendar that used a single leap day every four years to keep it aligned. He also restored January 1 as the first day of the year.

Most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar quickly, but the Protestant and Eastern Rite countries were a little more hesitant. The Protestants complained that the "Roman Antichrist" was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days. The Eastern Rite churches wanted to maintain tradition, so some Eastern European countries kept the Julian calendar for centuries more. Russia didn't switch to the Gregorian calendar until after the 1917 revolution, and even today the Eastern Orthodox Church still follows either the traditional or revised Julian calendar to set its liturgical year.

Eventually the Protestant nations came around and switched to the Gregorian calendar. Most, though, changed the start of the year well before they adopted the whole thing. England, Ireland and the British colonies made January 1 the start of the year in early 1752 - Scotland had already switched about 150 years earlier - but waited until September to fully embrace the new calendar. The staggered move was perhaps symbolic, bringing the government calendar in line with the peoples' before bringing the nation's calendar in line the with Pope's.

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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