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25 February 2023

The Christians have convinced me: Lent, not January, is the time for giving things up

Everything in the calendar is in the wrong place.

By Jonn Elledge

On Wednesday evening the movie star and Catholic Mark Wahlberg appeared on NBC with a cross of ash on his forehead and started quoting the Pope. The previous evening a surprisingly large chunk of your social circle was unavailable, because they’d found a socially acceptable excuse to pour maple syrup on their dinner. Lent, the time of year when Christians give fun stuff up to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, is upon us once again.

As someone with the sort of temperament and background where you do the pancake bit but not the fasting bit, the fact some people take it seriously always comes as a bit of a surprise to me. This year, though, I’ve been wondering whether Christianity might have a point. If you’re going to give stuff up for a while this might be exactly the right time of year to do it.

The more secular section of society tends to do its giving up in January, which makes sense, since it follows the month which, even if you’re not a big one for Christmas, is most likely to be one of excess. There’s also something that just feels right about making a new start with your diet/gym regime/life ruining addiction/whatever when the date flips over to a new year.

The only problem with this logic is that January is bloody horrible: it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dark before you leave the office, and as if that weren’t depressing enough you’re almost certainly broke. What’s more, unlike February, it doesn’t even have the good grace to keep things short, so that every year it feels like it goes on longer than the director’s cut version of the Franco-Prussian War. January is rubbish. It’s the absolute worst time of the year to quit the gin and Haribo. As we all kept saying to each other during the pandemic: just get through it, you can go back to worrying about actually achieving something later.

[See also: How Bari Weiss broke the media]

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Given all that, it’s worth asking why we put the “everything stops for a week, and then we start anew” bit of the year when we do. The date of Christmas is explained easily enough. There’s no textual evidence for putting the nativity in December, but it had to go somewhere; and since there were already pagan mid-winter festivals available, concerned with the solstice, turning animals into meat so you didn’t have to feed them through the winter and so on, it probably made sense to piggyback on them. The fact we base it on the movement of the spheres rather than the actual weather does mean we do our mid-winter festival with the worst of the winter still to come, which is not ideal, really – but you can at least see the logic.

The decision to place New Year at a point in the calendar when nothing much feels new at all takes more explaining, and actually for much of history the date of new year wasn’t 1 January at all. The earliest Romans began the year with the spring in March (which is why, for example, the ninth month takes its name from the Latin word for “seven”); medieval Christian societies generally put the new year on a festival day, either 25 March (the Feast of the Annunciation), or 25 December (take a wild guess).

The later Romans, though, reorganised the calendar to start the new year in January. (They didn’t renumber the months because they would make things too easy.) And when Pope Gregory XIII decided to reform it again in 1582, to deal with the fact the Roman year was 11 minutes too long, he decided to follow the later, more Christian Romans by announcing that the year should henceforth begin in January, too.

What became the UK didn’t follow suit for another 170 years, and had to drop 11 days from the calendar to get itself in line with everybody else when it did, which means two things:

a) 24 March of one year was for a long time followed by 25 March of the next, so that, for example, Tuesday 24 March 1750 was followed by Wednesday 25 March 1751, which is just really weird; and 

b) when the reform came in, keeping accounts in some sort of order, and not ending up with different length years despite the missing days, required moving the first day of the financial year from 25 March to 6 April, leaving us with yet another apparently random date in the calendar every year. (The annual tax deadline for filing your self-assessment is, of course, just one more reason why January is the worst time of year to give anything up.)

Anyway: right now the worst of the winter is probably over, green stuff is emerging from the ground in a manner that we have collectively decided to find life-affirming rather than terrifying, and if you want to take up running there’s actually enough daylight now to do it before or after work. This, surely, is a much better time of year for health kicks than the absolute depths of winter.

So from now on, I move, we dedicate January to eating, drinking and doing what the hell we like, and sort out the mess later once the world is at least a little less depressing. The church may have some weird ideas about dates – but they got Lent bang on.

Read more:

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The psychology of why we celebrate Christmas

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