Ever wondered why we celebrate the new year on January 1? I mean, what is so special about that date? If you follow the sun or moon, it makes no sense – it is neither an equinox nor a solstice. If it is meant to commemorate someone’s birthday, we have long forgotten who we are supposed to honour. Furthermore, given how the calendar loops around on itself, technically, we could have Napoleon’s birthday, August 15, as the beginning of the new year and it would still be fine. This whole exercise, is very much like asking about the starting point of a circle.

January 1 is a suspicious character, especially given our penchant to celebrate things on wrong days like the birth of Jesus on December 25, or for that matter, the French Revolution on July 14 (we all know it’s supposed to be June 20th, right?). Anyway, in case you are a curious sort of chap, here is why January 1 has the distinction of being primus inter pares.

Different cultures celebrated the arrival of a new year at different times. The most common is March 21, the vernal equinox and the marker of the beginning of spring and new life after the dull and dreary winter. Yet cultures are known to have marked the new year according to the lunar year, meaning the date shifts slightly each year on our Gregorian calendars. The Sikhs seem to have developed an affinity for March 14 as the first day of their new year, while some communities in India wait for the Sun to enter Aries (approximately April 15). The Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians seemed to prefer the July-August period (depending on when in their history), and the Ethiopians took a fancy for September 11 (no, don’t go there!).

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity had little to do with the Gregorian calendar. January 1 was the first day of January (duh!), the month named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of doorways and beginnings. Friends of Janus will tell you that his one face looks into the past and his other into the future.

Interestingly, the months January and February did not exist in the oldest Roman calendars. The two were added by Numa Pontilius, the second of the “seven kings of Rome” – I put that in quotes because it is merely a myth and I do not wish to dwell on the intricacies of archaic Roman history here. These additions were made around 700 BCE, or 53 AUC in Roman terms.

It was around 153 BCE that January 1 was made the starting point of the year, the day Roman consuls and other elected officials took office. As a result, January 1 was seen as the civic new year and many continued to celebrate March 1 as the beginning of the new year. The change in 153 BCE, according to one historian, was done due to the pressures of the Lusitanian War; a Lusitanian chief called Punicus was giving the Roman consuls who had been elected in 154 BCE a difficult time, and the Senate feared the consequences of waiting until the traditional dates in March and May for the new consuls to take office. As a result, the new year was moved up by two months.

Off the top of my head, this explanation leaves me bewildered because Rome already had a mechanism to deal with such emergencies – the office of the dictator and his Master of the Horse. Again, before we get sidetracked into discussing crazy Roman customs, suffice it to say that the reforms of Julius Caesar in 46 BCE created a more straight-forward calendar, ended the practice of observing March 1 as the new year, and firmly marked January 1 as the beginning of the new year.

After the fall of the Eternal City, the Church felt that January 1 was a pagan symbol and shifted the new year; at various times and places, the new year was observed on December 25, March 1, March 15, the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), or on Easter. However, this was only the official position – simple peasant folk continued to observe January 1 as a civic date for the new year.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII got tired of adjusting the dates of religious holidays due to a small discrepancy in the Julian calendar and modified it to the form we know today. It is not as if the discrepancy was not known – that the length of a solar year is a few minutes short of 365¼ days was not unknown, but was quite irrelevant in the past as most societies used the lunar calendar. Julius Caesar’s shift to the solar calendar did not take into account the few minutes and this meant that the Julian calendar gained about three days every four centuries. This was fixed and the calendar adjusted by the Pope.

Amusingly, the Gregorian calendar was not accepted immediately on religious grounds – though adopted immediately in Catholic lands, Protestant kingdoms such as England insisted that the “Roman Antichrist” was trying to trick them into worshipping on wrong days! Similar resistance was faced in Orthodox lands too – Russia did not convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1917, when they had gone a full 13 days ahead. Talk about the micro imprints of the Reformation (or Schism)!

The new calendar was finally accepted in Denmark in 1700, England around 1752, and Sweden in 1753 (the story of how the Swedes shifted from the Julian to Gregorian calendar is quite amusing and includes a February 30 in 1712). Alaska changed over in 1867 when the United states, a Gregorian power, purchased it from Russia, a Julian power.

The spread of imperialism meant that the Gregorian calendar spread across the world via gunships and bayonets. Even countries that were not colonised, like Japan (1872), adopted the new calendar in their efforts to modernise. Korea switched over in 1895 and China in 1912. Orthodox countries remained the last hold-outs of the Julian calendar. Greece converted in 1923 but only for civic functions – several Orthodox churches maintain the Julian calendar but some have modified it to bring it more in line with the Gregorian system.

The history of time measurement is quite fascinating if you look at how many calendars have been devised over the centuries and the reasons they were improved upon, implemented, or failed. Anyway, now you know how January 1 became the start of a new year. Happy New Year 🙂

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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