When New Year's Day Falls on Friday, Can Catholics Eat Meat?

Holy Days, Holidays, and the Rules of Abstinence

Southern New Year's meal with greens, beans, and ham hocks
Southern New Year's Day meal with greens, beans, and ham hocks. Jupiterimages/Photolibrary/Getty Images

For many people, New Year's Day represents the end of their Christmas festivities (even though the Twelve Days of Christmas continue until the Epiphany of Our Lord). It's no surprise, then, that the first day of the new year has come to be associated with rich foods (especially soothing for those who may be recovering from a night of more than average drinking) and abundant meat. While turkey and goose often dominate the Christmas table, the New Year's Day feast frequently showcases pork and beef.

And yet, New Year's Day sometimes falls on a Friday, the day on which Catholics traditionally abstain from meat. What happens when the Church's rules regarding abstinence run up against a holiday? When New Year's Day falls on a Friday, can you eat meat?

New Year's Day Is a Solemnity—But Not Because It's New Year's Day

The answer, it turns out, is a simple "yes," but not because of the secular holiday of New Year's Day. January 1 is the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and solemnities are the highest-ranking feasts in the Catholic liturgical calendar. (Other solemnities include Christmas, Easter SundayPentecost Sunday, Trinity Sunday, the Feasts of Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Joseph, as well as certain feasts of our Lord, such as Epiphany and Ascension, and other feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, including Immaculate Conception.)

No Fasting or Abstinence on Solemnities

Because of their elevated status, many (though not all) solemnities are Holy Days of Obligation.

And we attend Mass on these great feasts because, in essence, a solemnity is as important as a Sunday. And just as Sundays are never days of fasting or abstinence, we refrain from penitential practices on feasts such as the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, as well. (See "Should We Fast on Sundays?

" for more details.) That is why the Code of Canon Law (Can. 1251) declares:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday [emphasis mine].

Pork and Kraut, Ham and Black-Eyed Peas, Prime Rib—It's All Good

Thus, whenever the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, or any other solemnity falls on a Friday, the faithful are dispensed from the requirement to abstain from meat or to practice whatever other form of penance their national conference of bishops has prescribed. So if you're German like me, go ahead and eat your pork and sauerkraut; or throw a ham hock in with those Southern-style black-eyed peas. Or dig into that slow-roasted prime rib—just make sure to start the New Year off right with Mary, the Mother of God.

What About New Year's Eve?

Traditionally the vigil of major feasts such as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, were days of both abstinence and fasting, which heightened the joy of the coming feast. So even when New Year's Day fell on a Friday, and you could eat meat on New Year's Day because it was a solemnity, Catholics would still have abstained on New Year's Eve.

Of course, that traditional practice officially ended many decades ago, and now any fasting or abstinence on the day before a feast is strictly voluntary.

What If New Year's Eve Falls on a Friday?

However, if New Year's Eve falls on a Friday, that changes things. Like the vigil of any solemnity, New Year's Eve is not a solemnity itself, so the current rules regarding Friday abstinence apply. If your national bishops' conference has said that Catholics in your country should abstain from meat on Fridays, then New Year's Eve is no exception. Of course, if your bishops' conference allows for the substitution of some other form of penance for abstinence, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does, then you can eat meat, as long as you perform a different act of penance.

So if you're invited to a New Year's Eve party, and it falls on a Friday, and you don't know what meatless food (if any) will be available, you can substitute some other acceptable form of penance earlier in the day.

There's no need to feel guilty about violating your Friday abstinence—with a little planning, you can perform your penance and eat meat, too.