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Lessons from the Romans on Getting the New Year Off to a Good Start

We are in the territory of Janus, the ancient Roman god who gives us the name of our first month. Janus is the master of beginnings, as well as doors and archways (minus their hinges, a subspecialty deputized to the goddess Cardea). Getting things off on the right foot was important to the Romans, who believed that “beginning are often omens,” in the words of Ovid. This superstition gives rise to several modern-day customs, such as carrying a bride over the threshold lest she stumble and set a disastrous tone for the whole marriage.

Janus-head flask / Roman

Janus-head flask, 1st century A.D., eastern Mediterranean. Glass, 3 7/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.474

The beginning of every month was sacred to Janus, especially the beginning of the first month. On the kalends of Januarius, Romans did everything possible to please (read: bribe) Janus to ensure a prosperous new year. They adorned their houses with evergreens, prepared offerings for the god, and exchanged good wishes and strenae, or “good signs,” such as dates and figs, which portended sweet things to come. The Roman custom of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Day continued through the Middle Ages, and in some places, endures to the present—though the old pagan feasting, gifting, and decorating have moved back a week or so in association with Christmas. Luckily, Janus’s preferred offerings did not include slaughtered lambs or babies, but cakes of spelt and salt.

The feast of Janus was also a moment to try on one’s new, improved New Year’s self, as in this description from the classic tome A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology:

On New Year’s Day, which was the principal festival of the god, people took care that all they thought, said, and did, was pure and favorable, since every thing was ominous for the occurrences of the whole year. Hence the people wore festive garments, abstained from cursing, quarrelling; they saluted every one they met with words of favourable import, gave presents to one another, and performed some part of what they intended to do in the course of the year.

How long after New Year’s this virtuous behavior lasted is anyone’s guess.

Janus is easy to spot because he’s always depicted with two faces–sometimes with one youthful and one aged, as in this late-Renaissance drawing in the exhibition Disegno: Drawing in Europe, 1520–1600. Here he holds his attribute, a key, a reference to his realm of gates and doors.

Detail of Janus in Victory, Janus, Chronos, and Gaea / Giulio Romano

Victory, Janus, Chronos, and Gaea (detail), about 1532–34, Giulio Romano (Giulio Pippi). Pen and brown ink and wash over black chalk, 14 3/4 x 12 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 94.GA.32

Janus’s two faces aren’t meant to suggest villainy, but rather his ability to see both comings and goings, past and future. And as this illumination from a medieval calendar shows, having two mouths comes in handy because you can eat and drink at the same time. This piggish Janus appears to be eating some kind of sausage, rather than a bland spelt patty.

Janus Feasting in the Ruskin Hours

Janus Feasting in the Ruskin Hours, French, about 1300. Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment, 10 3/8 x 7 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 3

Is Janus watching us this year? It might not hurt to offer up some cake, and to pursue your new year’s resolutions for at least one day just in case. And cut down on the cursing and quarreling, dammit!

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      From you have I been absent in the spring,
      When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
      Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
      That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
      Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
      Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
      Could make me any summer’s story tell,
      Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
      Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
      Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
      They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
      Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
      Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
      As with your shadow I with these did play.

      —William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564

      Vase of Flowers (detail), 1722, Jan van Huysum. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      04/23/14

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