It’s the night before the New Year and all through the town, all the people are stirring, getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve. It’s an old custom, ingrained in our culture, seemingly as natural as night and day.
But why January 1st? What’s so special about this day that we celebrate it as a new beginning?
The easy answer is that the first month of the year is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman God who looks both forward into the future and backward to the past, just as all the pundits have been doing for the past week. Julius Caesar created a calendar with Janus’s month at the beginning, named after himself as the Julian Calendar, which was used from 45 BC until the 11th Century.
We don’t use the Julian calendar anymore, because it didn’t agree with the exact time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, thus getting further and further out of date with the seasons as time wore on, as it often does. This was inconvenient and verily it troubled many of the new Enlightenment thinkers of the time.
So Pope Gregory started a new calendar in 1585, that inserted a leap year to keep the seasons and the calendar in sync. We use the Gregorian Calendar today, with January 1st as the first day.
But wait, why did my ancestors in the Olde Country start their year on March 25th, thus messing with the heads of future genealogists trying to pin down vital records of their distant 11th Great-Grandfather?
Well… as you might already know, pagans and other non-Christian folks counted their days, nights and years by the seasons and by celestial phenomena, which we retain in our culture as the Winter and Summer Solstice and the Spring and Fall Equinox. There were lots of other nature based holidays to celebrate as well, which helped a lot of medieval folks get through some pretty tough times.
Originally, the new year was celebrated either on the Winter Solstice, when daylight hours once again began to lengthen and the ascent from a long dark winter was begun. Others chose the Spring equinox as the time of renewal, and growth of things green and warm, a suitable occasion to start the new year.
When the Christian religion spread from Rome to the hinterlands, wily Christian theologians discovered it was more effective to co-opt the old pagan holidays and rename them to match the new belief than to try to do away with them altogether. Thus, the Winter Solstice became Christmas, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, and the New Year was set to begin on March 25, marking the Annunciation, the announcement that Jesus Christ was born, starting the whole Christian year.
This went on for some 600 years, until, in 1752, ecclesiastical squabbles over the true date of Easter resulted in resetting the date of the Gregorian New Year back to the old Julian January 1st.
So here we are, poised on the cusp of a new, Gregorian, January 1st New Year!
Have a Happy New Year whenever you start it!