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Origins of New Year’s Day

For some who have had a nice year, the end of the year may come with grief. To others who have had a bad one, the beginning of a new year may be the expectation of better times.

But why do we give so much importance to this particular moment?


We have a number of cycles induced by our calendar: days, weeks, months and years. All of which have some importance in our life. We don’t celebrate days as is, though it’s always good to be back from home and spend some time with the family, and get some rest before going through the next day. We don’t celebrate weeks neither, though the end of one means two days off from work which we may spend with family or friends, party a bit, or do nothing at all. We certainly don’t celebrate months as for most of us a new month means a bunch of new bills to pay, including the rent. Though those who, for different reasons, cannot fit themselves on the work market may see the coming of a new month with some joy, as their monthly government support is being deposited that day, allowing them to finally buy what they have dreaming of for three weeks, and possibly put an end to several days of soberness.

But then, we celebrates new years. Perhaps because other cycles are too short to be worthy of celebration. Perhaps we think a year is long enough to be.

New Year’s Day

Why January 1st? The first thing to know is that it has not always been that date. Different cultures and periods have had their own idea of what date is New Year’s Day.

A year is defined as the duration it takes for the Earth to complete a full orbit around the Sun, which is, according to modern science, 365.24219 days. Because it would be complicated to split a day to match our calendar with such an odd number, it was instead designed so that a normal year is 365 days, and a day is added every few years to realign the calendar over time and ensure that, year after year, each day of the year is roughly the same. A calendar based on this rule is called a solar calendar, because it is designed to follow the orbits of the Earth around the Sun.

While we understand this definition of a year, there is no easy scientific definition which would let us know when a new year begins. Any single position of the Earth around the Sun could have been chosen arbitrarily to represent the beginning of a new year.

Several ancient civilizations, among others the Ancient Egyptians, the Mayans and the Greeks, used to set the winter solstice as the beginning of a new year. The exact day which actually marked the beginning of the year was based on cultural interpretation though, as before modern science it was hard to tell exactly which day was the solstice. The Ancient Egyptians calculated the maximum height of the sun in the sky each day and determined that the day at which the Sun went the lowest was the solstice. However, based on that calculation, the solstice would last three days, because for three days it is impossible to see a difference in the height of the sun. They celebrated the new year the first day which is longer than the previous one. Though we are not sure as to how the Mayans calculated and interpreted the solstice, they apparently found a better method as they began their calendar on a winter solstice, exact to our modern definition.

The oldest root of our calendar which, we know of, is called the Roman calendar, though it have been revised and improved several times. It was originally a purely lunar calendar. Each month began on the first crescent of the moon, and days were counted backward to the end of the month. There were no concept of years, unnamed months simply followed each other with the cycles of the moon. Therefore, it is thought that the Romans did not celebrate new years at that time.

Romulus, who founded Rome around 753 BC, is attributed the first calendar which toke years into account. Keeping the concept of months close to what it was known before, he named 10 months, March to December. These months were not aligned with the moon cycles anymore, though, and instead the calendar would start the first month each year with the spring equinox. Since this calendar was only 304 days in length, the winter days, after December, were not part of any month. It is thought that the Romans began celebrating new years somewhere during the use of that version of the calendar, the new year’s day being on the spring equinox, on the first day or March.

Numa, the second king of Rome, prefixed two months, January and February, to include the days of winter. However, his calendar was only 355 days long and was no longer aligned with the spring equinox. Despite these facts, it is know that the Romans still celebrated the new year on the first day of March. In order to keep the calendar roughly aligned with the seasons, a leap month, called Mensis Intercalaris, was sometimes added between February and March. There was no fixed rule to determine which year was a leap year. Instead, pontifices would decide each year if there would be a leap month that year. As pontifices were often politicians or close to them, and since office terms were synchronized with calendar years, leap months were often used to lengthen or shorten the terms of those in powers, depending on how they liked or disliked them, making the system prone to abuse. Furthermore, since announcements were usually made very shortly before the time, the average Roman (in particular those who lived farther from the city) did not know what date it was. Because of that, these years are know as the years of confusion.

To match the celebration of the new year with the calendar, the new year’s day was moved to the first day of January, which was celebrated on that day for the first time in 153 BC. However, a minority did not follow the change and kept celebrating on the first day of March.

Roman SoldiersJulius Caesar proposed a reform to the calendar which would fix both the problem of abuse of power by the pontifices and the complete misalignment of the calendar with the seasons. He called for a calendar which would be of twelve months of approximately equal length for a total of 365 days. Furthermore, a leap day would be added at the end of February every four years, averaging the year to 365.25 days, very close to the astronomical year, allowing for an error of only about 3 days every 400 years. The Julian Calendar, adopted in 45 BC, was initially aligned so that the spring equinox would be on March 21st (the reason for that choice being unknown to me). Lastly, Julius Caesar also dictated that the new year was to be celebrated on the first day of January. Many consider that the Julian calendar was the first solar calendar.

A misinterpretation of the leap-year rule caused a leap day every 3 years rather than 4. Augustus, first emperor of Rome, correctly fixed the discrepancy 36 years later and compensated for the extra days accumulated to realign correctly.

In 325 AD, Constantine founded Christianity and adopted it as the state religion for the Roman Empire. Christianity spread quickly throughout Europe, fixing dates for a number of religious celebrations. Many began using different dates for the celebration of a new year, to match with one of the Christian major celebrations. By the early medieval, many nations had adopted new dates as legal beginning of a new year, however not every nation adopted the same date. Some picked Easter and others preferred Christmas.

Gregorian Calendar

The last day of the Julian calendar was Oct. 4th. The Gregorian Calendar began on Oct. 15th, 1582

The Gregorian calendar, which we use in most of the world today, was adopted in 1582. The reform was intended to realign the calendar so that the spring equinox would return to March 21st, as that date was used to determine the date for Easter. Because of the small inaccuracy of the Julian Calendar, the equinox had drift 10 years over the centuries, to a date much earlier into the month. Pope Gregory XIII removed 10 days to realign the calendar, and then made a slight change to the leap-year rule so that the calendar would not drift again. His change made the average year 365.2425 days, down from the Julian length of 365.25 days, which is closer to the astronomical length of 365.24219 days. Lastly, he restored the beginning of the year to January 1st again and the New Year’s Day celebration that day.

It is to note that, from an astronomical point of view, the date of January 1st as the start of a year matches absolutely nothing.

Happy New Year!!


3 comments on “Origins of New Year’s Day

  1. Dianda
    January 1, 2013

    Happy New year!
    Funny, The Chinese celebrate it on different dates each year, but ysyally between january and february.

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 1, 2013

      The traditional Chinese calendar is often called a lunisolar calendar. It is really a lunar calendar with 12 months based and aligned with moons, but they use intercalary months to keep the calendar aligned with the solar year. A year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, which inevitably occurs in late January or early February. While the Chinese have converted to the Gregorian calendar long ago, they still use the traditional calendar for the dates of traditional celebrations. The new year celebration is their most important one. It is celebrated for several days before and after the actual date and observed in many Asian countries on which the Chinese historically had a strong influence and where there is an important concentration of Chinese people.

      See, I know a thing or two about the Chinese 🙂

      According to Google, the Chinese New Year will be on February 10th, 2013. They probably have an end of the world planned for early February (lame joke to follow with the article above).

      Happy New Year Dianda! 🙂

      • Dianda
        January 1, 2013

        I doubt my mother in law knows about this!

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This entry was posted on December 31, 2012 by in History, Holidays and tagged , , , , , , , .
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