Starting the new year on the first of January feels counterintuitive. We mark a fresh beginning in the dead of winter, when the days are shorter and the nights are colder. Who can make major life adjustments right now? Bears are hibernating; nature — metaphorically (and sometimes literally!) — is asleep.
It’s not easy to pick a day to kick off another rotation around the sun (if you want to go the solar route, that is). The way humans devised systems to track time has been a complicated and fraught affair borne out over millennia and influenced by religious traditions, politics, seasonal change and astronomical events.
But despite the various options at our avail — phases of the moon, equinoxes, solstices — our new year starts during a practical dead zone in the natural world. January is no time for renewal and rejuvenation. It’s a time for hunkering down, eating stores of food, and surviving — at least for those of us in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.
Jan. 1 isn’t the only New Year’s Day; many religious and cultural communities also observe their own calendars. But much of the world abides by the Gregorian calendar’s solar dating system to organize civil life. And its start, on Jan. 1, is the byproduct of a political and religious history that few know much about anymore.
The emergence of Jan. 1
How did Jan. 1 become such a big deal? Politics, baby.
When the Romans used a lunar calendar, the year began in March, on the day the new consul took office. But by 153 B.C., with the addition of some months, consuls assumed office on Jan. 1.
There’s also some religious significance, as January had a festival for Janus, the god of gates, or beginnings. As the Greek-born historian and philosopher Plutarch wrote, one explanation invoked the legendary first king of Rome, Romulus, “a warrior and a lover of battle, and was thought to be a son of Mars,” who preferred March, named after … Mars.
But then a king named Numa, “a lover of peace and whose ambition was to turn the city towards husbandry and to divert it from war, gave precedence to January,” named after Janus “a statesman and husbandman rather than a warrior.”
How do you feel about Roman gods and kings helping dictate your calendar circa 2016?
Apparently, even Plutarch acknowledged the arbitrary nature of picking the start to the Roman calendar. From his “Roman Questions“:
Speaking generally, to be sure, there is not naturally either last or first in a cycle; and it is by custom that some adopt one beginning of this period and others another. They do best, however, who adopt the beginning after the winter solstice, when the sun has ceased to advance, and turns about and retraces his course toward us. For this beginning of the year is in a certain way natural to mankind, since it increases the amount of light that we receive and decreases the amount of darkness, and brings nearer to us the lord and leader of all mobile matter.
Okay, fine. I guess kicking off a new year as the days begin to grow long again makes some sense. But the winter solstice, when the earth’s tilt away from the sun reaches a maximum, typically falls on Dec. 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, per our current calendar. That’s not Dec. 31. You’re off by some days there, Plutarch.
Caesar steps in to sort it out
This Roman system had some problems. By the time Julius Caesar came onto the scene, the lunar-based Roman calendar had fallen out of sync with the seasons, creating an organizational mess.
So with the help of an Alexandrian astronomer, and using the Egyptian solar calendar as a foundation, Caesar introduced what’s now known as the Julian calendar in about 46 B.C.
Like its Roman predecessor, it started in January.
Early Christians began to adopt the Julian calendar, but people started observing New Year’s Day at very different times: March 1, March 25 and Dec. 25 were all considered New Year’s Day during various periods and places in Medieval Europe.
Say hello to the Gregorian calendar
Caesar’s calendar length was a little off, too. By the 1500s, the vernal equinox fell back 10 days, to March 11, which was problematic for the church that used the equinox to figure out when to observe Easter. Pope Gregory XII commissioned a reform to fix the problem, and the resulting system — the Gregorian calendar — deleted some days from the calendar year and changed the way Easter was determined.
It also codified Jan. 1 as the official start of the new year, keeping with its predecessor (and also falling on the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ — happy new year!).
Not everyone was on board with this “New Style” calendar. Though Catholic states adopted it, Orthodox churches and Protestant states initially rejected the timetable in favor of the “Old Style” Julian calendar. Many Orthodox churches strictly observed the Julian calendar until World War I; some still adhere to a version of it.
The British held out, too. Along with the American colonies, Britain used the Julian calendar and observed New Year’s Day on March 25, Lady Day, also known as the Feast of the Annunciation. It wasn’t until 1752 when the Brits gave in to the Gregorian calendar and changed the New Year’s Day to Jan. 1. That’s right — we were pretty close to standing outside, waiting for that Times Square ball to drop, in much more temperate air.
So, what are our other options?
Even though Gregorian is how most of us function day-to-day, many religious communities and cultures have their own calendars.
There are religious calendars, such as from the Muslim, Hindu and Jewish traditions, that dictate holiday observances and fasts and begin anew at many different points throughout the Gregorian year. For instance, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah comes between September and October on the Gregorian calendar. The Coptic Church also observes new year in September. The Islamic new year fluctuates, thanks to the lunar nature of its calendar.
Many East Asian countries celebrate the Lunar New Year, a day that varies between January and February and coincides with the second new moon after the winter solstice. Lunar New Year historically came during a period of rest for Chinese farmers and served as a marker of the coming of spring.
Doesn’t spring — the very season of renewal — feel like a more natural time to kick off a year?
Persians and many others mark the new year on the first day of spring, in a festival called Nowruz. It coincides with the vernal equinox, which falls between March 19 and 21 and comes when day and night are nearly identical in length due to the tilt of the earth.
Such new year’s days don’t always have fixed dates, per Gregorian terms. But dates also fluctuate on the Gregorian calendar, and some have proposed alternatives to address this; former NASA astrophysicist Richard Conn Henry has one idea that would keep dates consistent with the days of the week. Christmas and New Year’s Day would always be on a Sunday under the Hanke-Henry Calendar.
In practical terms, embarking on any major calendar change would require overhauling a system that dictates how the world’s economies and populations function, and, I don’t know, maybe world leaders have bigger fish to fry. So, it’s probably not happening any time soon — certainly not this year.
And that’s okay. Go ahead and count down to midnight on Dec. 31. Then, make your frenetic — and likely doomed — attempts at fulfilling lofty New Year’s resolutions during a brutal winter month.
Me? I’m laying low until the bears awaken from their slumber.