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New Year Day Not What It Used to Be«Back to View Articles | Back to All Articles
12/29/2008 - David Mower

New Years Day isn’t what it used to be.  Nope.  While throughout record history there has been a new years day, a day marked by both reflection on the past and festive celebration of the new year,  the day we know as New Years Day - January 1st - wasn’t always new year's day. 

The celebration of a new year day is one of the oldest festivals (or more commonly in today’s culture - “holidays”).  The earliest documented New Year celebration occurred in Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C.E. The celebrations typically occurred in the middle of winter in an attempt to ensure the return of spring and fertility.  It marked the first New Moon after the Vernal Equinox - sometime between mid-March and mid-April.  So how did New Year's Day get moved from summer to winter?

In Babylonia the new year began with the new moon closest to the spring equinox, usually mid-March. In Assyria it was near the autumnal equinox in September. For the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians the day was celebrated on the autumnal equinox, which now falls on about September 23.

For the Greeks it was the winter solstice, which now falls on about December 21 or 22.  In the early Roman republic March 1 began the new year, but Roman emperor Julius Caesar, in correcting the old Roman calendar in 46 B.C., made January the first month.  

The historic problem with ancient calendars was keeping them in sync with the equinox.  Some calendars are based on the movement of the moon, others are based on the position of the sun, while others are based on both the sun and the moon.  Consequently, each year, slippage in the calendars due to inexact calculations of lunar and solar cycles, caused serious problems in keeping important festivals dates appropriate to their season.

The solution was to manually add or subtract days, weeks, months, and other assorted periods of time to existing calenders at periodic intervals to bring them back into proper lunar or solar relationships.  During the early Roman republic era, this was a function of the government priests.  However, events or crisis caused the government to miss making annual adjustments (like during the Civil War), or the priests in the Roman Empire exploited the calendar for political ends, inserting days and even months into the calendar to keep the politicians they favored in office.  Consequently, the calendar would become significantly out of sync causing confusion as to when various festivals were to be properly observed.  In fact the last years of the Roman Calendar are referred to as the "years of confusion".  (I guess the Roman gods became upset when festivals dedicated to them were skipped.)

Before Julius Caesar introduced [what became known as] the Julian calendar in 45 B.C.E., the Roman calendar was a mess.  Originally, the year started on 1 March and consisted of only 304 days or 10 months (Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December). These 304 days were followed by an unnamed and unnumbered winter period.

The Roman king Numa Pompilius (c. 715-673 B.C.) allegedly introduced February and January (in that order) between December and March, increasing the length of the year to 354 or 355 days. In 450 B.C.E., February was moved to its current position between January and March.  In order to make up for the lack of days in a year, an extra month (allegedly with 22 or 23 days) was introduced in some years.  Consequently, the Romans were the first to get serious about establishing a “self-regulating” calendar. 

In 46 BC, Julius Caesar replaced the Roman Calendar with a new verison that had a regular year of 365 days divided into 12 months, and a leap day is added to February every four years; the year is on average 365.25 days long. This "Julian" calendar remained in use into the 20th century in some countries as a national calendar, but it has generally been replaced by the modern Gregorian calendar.
[On a side note, "Janus" was the Roman god of doors and gates, and had two faces, one looking forward and one back.  Caesar felt that the month
named after this god ("January") would be the appropriate "door" to the year.  Caesar celebrated the first January 1 New Year by ordering the violent routing of revolutionary Jewish forces in the Galilee.  In later years, Roman pagans observed the New Year by engaging in drunken orgies -- a ritual they believed constituted a personal re-enacting of the chaotic world that existed before the cosmos was ordered by the gods.]

We have the Catholic Church to thank for our modern “Georgian” calendar. The Gregorian calendar was proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII and took effect in most Catholic states in 1582, in which October 4, 1582 of the Julian calendar was followed by October 15 in the new calendar, correcting for the accumulated discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the equinox as of that date. The Gregorian calendar is a minor correction to the Julian.

In the Julian calendar every fourth year is a leap year in which February has 29, not 28 days, but in the Gregorian, years divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also divisible by 400 [and Pope Gregory didn't even have a computer to figure all this out!]

During the early Middle Ages, March 25 (the feast of the Annunciation) was celebrated as New Year's Day.  January 1 was restored as New Year's Day by the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted by the Roman Catholic church in 1582. Over the next 350 years other countries followed. Russia, in 1918, was the last major nation to adopt the practice. In countries that still use the Julian calendar, New Year's Day is on January 14 of the Gregorian calendar.

Christian nations did not agree in the date of New Year's Day. They were not opposed to 1 January as the beginning of the year, but rather to the pagan extravagances which accompanied it. Evidently the natural opening of the year, the springtime, together with the Jewish opening of the sacred year, Nisan, suggested the propriety of putting the beginning in that beautiful season.

Also, the Dionysian method (so named from the Abbot Dionysius, sixth century) of dating events from the coming of Christ became an important factor in New Year calculations. The Annunciation, with which Dionysius began the Christian era, was fixed on 25 March, and became New Year's Day for England, in early times and from the thirteenth century to 1 Jan., 1752, when the present custom was introduced there.

Some countries (e.g., Germany) began with Christmas, thus being almost in harmony with the ancient Germans, who made the winter solstice their starting-point.

Notwithstanding the movable character of Easter, France and the took it as the first day of the year, while Russia, up to the eighteenth century, made September the first month.

The western nations, however, since the sixteenth, or, at the latest, the eighteenth century, have adopted and retained the first of January.

The U.S. Government currently uses October 1st  as the start of its new year because previously they were too busy partying on the traditional New Years Eve when it was December 31st to get all the taxpayer’s monies spend before the stroke of mid-night.  Since September 30 is not a party day on anyone’s calendar, this no longer a problem to work right up to the 12th stroke of mid-night.

The celebration of the New Year's holiday begins the night before on New Year's Eve, when Americans gather to wish each other a happy and prosperous coming year. At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, people cheer and sing "Auld Lang Syne." The song, which means "old long since" or roughly "the good old days," was written by Robert Burns in 1788.  It has been said that Auld Lang Syne is the most popular song sung, thatnobody knows the words too, so follow along below:

Auld Lang Syne
Performance by The U.S. Army Ceremonial Band

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of Auld Lang Syne?

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear,
For Auld Lang Syne;
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne

And here's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gives a hand o' thine;
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For Auld Land Syne

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear,
For Auld Lang Syne;
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne

Google Count down to the New Year.

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