Is New Year's a Holy Day of Obligation?

Mary and the child depected as a hodegetria. Tesselated icon in monumental style, early 13th century.
Public Domain

New Year's Day is not just the start of a new year, it's also a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. These special dates, also called feast days, are a time for prayer and refraining from work. However, if the New Year falls on a Saturday or a Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is abrogated.

What is a Holy Day of Obligation?

For practicing Catholics around the world, observing Holy Days of Obligation is part of their Sunday Duty, the first of the Precepts of the Church. Depending on your faith, the number of holy days per year varies. In the United States, New Year's Day is one of six Holy Days of Obligation that are observed: 

  • Jan. 1: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • 40 Days After Easter: Solemnity of the Ascension
  • Aug. 15: Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Nov. 1: Solemnity of All Saints
  • Dec. 8: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • Dec. 25: Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

There are 10 holy days in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, but only five in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Over time, the number of Holy Days of Obligation has fluctuated. Until Pope Urban VIII's reign in the early 1600s, bishops could hold as many feast days in their diocese as they wished. Urban trimmed that number to 36 days per year.

The number of feast days continued to dwindle in the 20th century as the West became more urbanized and more secular. In 1918, the Vatican limited the number of holy days to 18 and reduced the number to 10 in 1983. In 1991, the Vatican allowed Catholic bishops in the U.S. to move two of these holy days to Sunday, Epiphany and Corpus Christi. American Catholics also were no longer required to observe the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles.

In that same ruling, the Vatican also granted the U.S. Catholic Church an abrogation (waiving of ecclesiastical law), releasing the faithful from the requirement to attend Mass whenever a Holy Day of Obligation such as New Year's falls on a Saturday or Monday. The Solemnity of the Ascension, sometimes called Holy Thursday, is frequently observed on the nearest Sunday as well.

New Year's as a Holy Day

A solemnity is the highest ranking holy day in the Church calendar. The Solemnity of Mary is a liturgical feast day honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary's motherhood in the wake of the birth of the baby Jesus Christ. This holiday is also the Octave of Christmas or the 8th day of Christmas. As Mary's fiat reminds the faithful: "Be it done unto me according to Thy word."

New Year's Day has been associated with the Virgin Mary since the earliest days of Catholicism when many of the faithful in both the East and West would celebrate with a feast in her honor. Other early Catholics observed the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Jan. 1. It wasn't until the introduction of the Novus Ordo in 1965, that the Feast of the Circumcision was set aside, and the ancient practice of dedicating Jan. 1 to the Mother of God was revived as a universal feast.