Lady Day


March 25
Happy New Year!

For over six centuries, England celebrated March 25 as the first day of the new year, up until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

Being stapled to one solar calendar for so long, it’s hard for us to understand how this is possible. I mean, March 25 isn’t even the first day of the month, let alone the first month of the year.

But remember, for much of antiquity, the agrarian world straddled two systems of keeping track of time. The months, which mirrored the lunar cycles, and the years, which followed the quarter days (solstices and equinoxes) of the sun.

The Spring Equinox, with its natural imagery of rebirth and fertility, was deemed the logical start of the new year, a tradition held in societies as far apart as pre-Muslim Persia, Mayan Mexico, and Celtic Europe. No matter what calendar Rome imposed on the latter of the three.

Thus March 24, 1700 in England was followed by March 25, 1701.

The Annunciation, Barocci, 1590s

(The Jewish calendar follows a similar practice. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, starts in the seventh month of the year. Thus, the last day of the sixth month of 5769 is followed by the first day of the seventh month of 5770.)

Lady Day is so-named because it falls on the day of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, precisely nine months before Christmas. The Annunciation marks the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the conception of Jesus Christ. Thus the New Year on March 25 honors the first moment of the incarnation of Jesus.

When the Annunciation falls during Holy Week, the Vatican moves the date to the Sunday after Easter. Thus, in 2008, the Annunciation fell on March 31.

The Annunciation – Old New Year’s Day

March 25

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.

Luke 1:30-31

The Annunciation, da Vinci, c. 1475

Happy New Year!

Up until 1752, March 25th was the first day of the New Year in much of the English-speaking world. It was also known as Lady Day back then. March 25 marks the anniversary of the Annunciation—when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to inform her of her child to be.

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In the 6th century, a monk and historian named Dionysius Exiguus was asked to calculate the dates for Easter for many years. In order to do so, he set out to determine the precise dates of Jesus’s birth and death. Dionysius devised the Anno Domini (A.D.) dating system by counting backwards to Christ’s birth, or more accurately, Christ’s incarnation.

Using the reigns of Roman leaders, Dionysius calculated that the Christian calendar began 754 years after the foundation of Rome. He didn’t consider the first day of the Christian Era to be January 1 or even December 25, but nine months earlier—March 25—the Annunciation. In essence, the conception of Christ’s corporeal presence.

So, according to Dionysius’s system, March 24 in the year 999, for example, was followed by March 25 in the year 1000.

Though there are no clues in the Bible as to when the Annunciation occurred (except that it was six months after the conception of John the Baptist), early Christian scholars placed the date precisely nine months before Christmas.

For much of Christianity’s history, the Annunciation was one of the most important holidays of the year. Over the last few hundred years, the emphasis on the Annunciation has diminished, but it is still widely celebrated across the Christian world.

Why Do We Call Spring ‘Spring’?

Norooz and the 7 Sin’s

March 20 or 21. Falls precisely on spring equinox.

Spring is here, friends. Let’s stay in the garden, and be guests to the strangers of the green…

— Rumi


Norooz is known by dozens of names across the many countries where it’s celebrated. Nowruz, Norouz, Noruz, Noroz, Nowroz, Nauryz, Navruz, Novroze, and more.

Now comes from the same root as “new”, and ruz means both “day” and “time”.

But however you spell it, the Persian New Year is one of the oldest holidays in the world. It dates back to the Zoroastrian religion, and the almost universal practice in the ancient world of welcoming the New Year with the beginning of spring. It’s celebrated on the spring equinox, usually March 21 in the Gregorian calendar, plus or minus a day.

During Esfand, the last month of the Persian calendar, houses are cleaned top to bottom. This original “spring cleaning” is called khane tekani, and stems from the Zoroastrian preoccupation for cleanliness, a virtue further emphasized in Islam and in Persian culture. [Note: You won’t find “cleanliness is next to godliness” in the Bible, but it’s imperative in the Qur’an.] Khane tekani includes house painting, washing the carpets and rugs, clearing out the attic, and cleaning the yard.

Family members are also measured for new clothes.

An essential feature of Nowruz is the “Sofreh-e Haft Sin”—Sofreh is a special table cloth which is spread out a few days prior to the New Year on the family table to hold the Haft Sin.

Haft means 7. But no, it’s not the Seven Sins (although one of the ‘Sin’s is an apple). In the Persian alphabet the letter S is called Sin, and the Haft Sin are items that begin with S and are placed on the table:

  • Sabzeh (sabza): wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a dish, to symbolize rebirth
  • Seeb (sib): apples, for health and beauty
  • Seer (sir): garlic cloves, symbolizing medicine
  • Serkeh (serka): vinegar, representing both age and patience
  • Samanu: a sweet reddish pudding made from wheat germ,  specially prepared according to tradition by the women of the household, symbolizing affluence.
  • Senjed: dried fruit of the oleaster, or lotus tree, symbolizing love. Rumor has it that the fragrant blossoms of the lotus tree make people fall in love.
  • Somaq: sumac berries, symbolizing the color of sunrise, and the victory of good over evil
The Haft Sin Table
The Haft Sin Table © Hamed Saber

Sometimes additional S’s are added to the table, or used in place of one of the above.

  • Sekka: newly minted coins, for prosperity and wealth
  • Sepand: seeds of wild rue, which are burned in a small incense burner after the New Year to ward off evil spirits
  • Sonbol: a fragrant hyacinth or narcissus flower, symbolizing the coming of spring.

Other common sights on the Nowruz table are:

  • decorated eggs, symbolizing fertility. Easter eggs come from the Persian tradition, not the other way around.
  • rose water, representing purification
  • a bowl of water with an orange, symbolizing the earth floating in space
  • candlesticks, one for each child in the family
  • a mirror, to reflect creation, which is believed to have occurred on the first day of spring.
  • and goldfish—in a fishbowl, not the little crackers. The goldfish symbolize life, as well as the constellation of Pisces, which the sun leaves as it enters the new year.

Nowruz is a cultural celebration rather than a religious one, but many families include the Qur’an on their Haft Sin table.

The traditions associated with Nowruz are far too numerous to describe here, but you can read about some of them at Norwuz Traditions –

Chaharshanbe Suri (fire-jumping)
Chaharshanbe Suri (fire-jumping), from a Kurdish Newrooz celebration in Istanbul

♦    ♦    ♦

Come to the orchard in spring.
There is light and wine and sweethearts
in the pomegranate field.
If you do not come,
these do not matter.
If you do come,
these do not matter.


♦    ♦    ♦

This year President Obama made an unprecedented video message to people observing Nowruz in Iran and elsewhere:

“Today I want to extend my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world. This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.”

What’s that? Not unprecedented? Nope, it turns out President Bush issued a similar greeting on March 20, 2003, though it was aimed at Iranians within the United States:

“During Nowruz, people of Iranian descent celebrate the arrival of spring, a season of rebirth. This joyous occasion provides an opportunity for Persians to cherish their rich heritage and enjoy the company of family and friends in anticipation of happiness and blessings in the year ahead.”

The March 20, 2003 announcement received far less play than Obama’s. A sign of bias in the liberal media? Perhaps. Or possibly because Bush’s Nowruz message fell on the exact same day as the invasion of Iraq.

Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia

Date varies. February 21-23, 2012

Mongolian flag

Today Mongolians celebrate Tsagaan Sar, or “White Month.” It roughly mirrors the Chinese Lunar New Year (but don’t say this out loud in Mongolia) and heralds the coming of spring.

The beginning of spring is definitely something to look forward to in Mongolia where temperatures hover well below 0°F in the winter months. A couple weeks ago the temperature was under -30º F.

This year’s Tsagaan Sar is a particularly harrowing one for the residents of Mongolian’s capital Ulaanbaatar (Mongolian for “City of many A’s”)

Last month the police shut down the city’s numerous vodka distilleries after alcohol poisonings:

by Ch. Sumiyabazar

An illegal vodka distilling factory in the Songinokhairhan District of Ulaanbaatar was discovered in a police raid last Sunday. The Uurag Altai company, whose operation license was halted two years ago, was found distilling vodka with the fake label “Morit Khangal,” whose vodka has killed 14 people and hospitalized dozens of others…

‘The small room where this business was conducted was horrible, small and had a terrible stench. A container used for mixing chemicals was unclean. There were no safety or hygienic standards at all,’ said a police officer.

Last week, two additional deaths were reported due to tainted vodka produced by the Asian Wolf company in Baganuur District that killed eleven people on New Year’s Eve. The deaths followed an emergency situation banning sales, distribution and bottling of alcholic products in the metropolitan area.

The Deputy Premier M. Enkbold appealed to the public not to celebrate the upcoming holiday, Tsagaan Sar lunar new year, with vodka.

Let’s hope they heed the warning.

Ulaana,’ who is researching in Mongolia, blogs: “My Tsagaan Sar experiences have been so vodka soaked, it’s hard to imagine a celebration here without it.”

Perhaps vodka-less celebrations wouldn’t be as fun, but probably more memorable.

Saikhan Shinlarai to all!

Posted February 9, 2008

Mongolian Lunar New Year

Tsagaan Sar – an Australian in Mongolia

Tsagaan Sar – a peace corp blog

Mongolians Brave Sub-Zero Winter to Welcome New Year – Feb. 2010

Chinese Lantern Festival

15 days after Chinese New Year
February 6, 2012
February 24, 2013

Experience is a comb nature gives us when we’re bald.

— Chinese Proverb


If you thought Chinese New Year was big this year, guess what:

It ain’t over.

Chinese New Year celebrations last for 15 days, right up until the first full moon of the year. The fifteenth night of the first lunar month, and culmination of the party, is the Lantern Festival.

There are many stories about the festival’s origin. According to one legend, a coastal village came under attack by ship. The villagers ran up to the mountains to hide. When the attackers moved on, a villager remaining in town lit up a sky lantern to signal to the villagers in the mountains that it was safe to come down.

Another legend says that the Jade Emperor in Heaven planned to unleash a fire of vengeance upon a town that had killed his favorite Goose. A fairy, hearing of the plan, warned the townspeople to light a bevy of lanterns on that day. From Heaven it appeared the town had already been set ablaze, and the Jade Emperor did not destroy it.

Moral of the story: do not mess with a Jade Emperor’s Goose!

Jade Emperor
Jade Emperor

People across China and Taiwan greet the first full moon of the year by creating their own short-lived Milky Way. Thousands of Sky Lanterns are released into the sky, in one of the most spectacular sights of the new year.

Before sending one’s sky lantern up into the heavens, it’s good luck to write a wish or prayer on the lantern or on a piece of paper inside it. The higher the wish and lantern ascend the more good luck they are believed to bring.

The Taiwanese word for Sky Lantern–Tian Ding–means “having a baby boy.”

The festival is called Yuan Xiao in Chinese. Yuan Xiao is also the name of the little glutenous rice-flour dumplings consumed in mass quantities on this day.

Chinese New Year 2009: Year of the Ox

[published January 26, 2009]


Year of the Ox:

Ox: You are a born leader, and you inspire confidence in those around you. You speak little, but are quite eloquent.  You are steadfast, solid, hard-working, goal-oriented, mentally and physically alert and generally easy-going, but remarkably stubborn. Be careful about being too demanding. You are also methodical and good with your hands. You will make a good surgeon, general or hairdresser.

— ancient Chinese Fortune Cookie

Actually they don’t have Chinese fortune cookies in China. Fortune cookies are an American thing.  Although the Chinese did hide secret messages in Moon Cakes way back in the 14th century, the closest cookie you’ll find to the modern incarnation date from 1800’s Japan.

Makin' fortune cookies, Japan, 1878
Makin' fortune cookies, Japanese etching, 1878

The legend is that fortune cookies were brought to North America by Chinese laborers around the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, but there’s no evidence of this.

They were probably were introduced in the U.S. by a Japanese immigrant in San Francisco in the 1910’s. Another claim is that they were made by a Chinese restaurant owner in L.A. So the question isn’t are they Japanese or Chinese, but are they Northern Californian or Southern Californian?

Fortune cookies became a staple at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. after World War II.

Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese Lunar Calendar is one of the oldest calendars in the world, and probably the oldest known horoscope.

The Rat is the first year of the 12-year cycle. An ancient legend explains the order of the animals. The twelve animals of the zodiac quarreled with each over who would be first, and the gods were asked to decide. A race was held, in which the 12 animals of the zodiac had to cross a river.

Ox was the first across the river. Little did he know Rat had hitched a ride on his back, and Rat darted across the finish line when they reached the other side. For this reason Ox is second.

Perhaps because of Rat’s savvy, “Years of the Rat” always coincide with a U.S. Presidential election. Since 1900, “Year of the Rat” elections have re-elected the sitting President, with the exceptions of 1912 (Wilson), 1960 (Kennedy), and 2008 (Obama).

Today marks the beginning of the year of the Ox.

Barack Obama is one of two “Oxes” to be elected President. [Gerald Ford and Chester Arthur were also “Oxes” but took over for resigning and assassinated Presidents.] The other was Warren G. Harding, who died in office, and whom until recently, many historians considered to be the country’s worst President.

15 Presidents (5 each) have been Rats (including George Washington), Snakes (FDR & JFK),  and Pigs (Jefferson, Jackson, Reagan).

Rats, Snakes, Pigs & other Presidents by Chinese Zodiac

“The ancient Chinese attributed the origin of all life to the balance between heaven and Earth, and the yin and the yang.”

Shelly Wu, Chinese Astrology

Chinese New Year is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world.

Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar


January 14

Today is the first day of Uttarayan, the 6-month season which lasts from January 14 to July 14 in India.

The festivals that celebrate the changing of the season go by many names in India. Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Lohri, and so on. They coincide with January 13th/14th in the Gregorian calendar.

The reason why Makar Sankranti is celebrated more than any other is that it marks the day the Sun starts moving north and the auspicious half of the year is characterized by increasing daylight. Of all the heavenly bodies, the Sun is the most glorious and the most important to life – and the Festival Marak Sankranti is one of the most important and happy feasts in its honor. It is the time when winter begins to loosen its grip and the days begin to grow warmer and warmer. — from Indian Festivals and Events

© Achim Pohl

Sankranti means, literally, to change direction, or to go from one place to another, and Makara (a crocodile/snail/elephant hybrid) refers to the Indian predecessor of the Greek constellation Capricorn. Thus, January 14th in India marks the day the sun begins to move from Sagittarius to Capricorn in the north.

The winter harvest festivals are celebrated in different ways among the one-billion plus people who make up the cultures of India. In the south January 14th is only the first day of a four-day holiday known as Pongal, named for the special rice dish associated with the harvest festival.

Indians in Gujarat celebrate with feasts and kite festivals in which the colorful skies help waken the gods who hibernated through winter. The largest of these is the International Kite Festival in Ahmedabad.

Photos of Ahmedabad Kite Festival

High Flyers of Gujurat