Saturday, January 03, 2015

187.4 - And Another Thing: why is New Year's Day on January 1?

And Another Thing: why is New Year's Day on January 1?

Okay, let’s wrap up the week with an edition of another of our occasional features, And Another Thing. This is where we step away from political things for a time. Usually, it's to bring up some cool science stuff; this time, we have some cool history stuff for you.

Last show, I talked about the question of why Christmas is on December 25 as opposed to any other day of the year. So this week we’re doing the natural follow-up: Why is New Year's Day on January 1 as opposed to any other day of the year? Because that wasn’t always true. So why? Why is January 1 the first day of the year for us?

The short answer is that in large part, the reason has to do with the convenience of the Roman senate, a calendar almost no one uses any more, and the stubbornness of tradition.

The earliest recorded New Year's celebrations are believed to have been in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago, that is, about 2000 BCE. Babylonians began the year with the first new Moon after the vernal equinox and greeted it with a multi-day celebration called Akitu. This actually is a logical time to start the year, since the vernal equinox is the first day of spring, in mid-March, amd spring is traditionally a time of beginnings, of renewals, of planting crops and the birth of new farm animals.

Depiction of part of Akitu celebration
Some other ancient cultures used different days, but all or at the very least most all had some astronomical or astrological significance: For example, the Egyptians used the helical rising of the star Sirius in mid-July, an event which predicted the annual flooding of the Nile so vital to their agriculture. The Persians used the vernal equinox, which is again the first day of spring; the Phoenicians used the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall; Greeks used the winter solstice, the first day of winter. January 1 has no such significance. So why then?

The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the first day of the new year. Which, parenthetically, also explains something else you may have wondered about: If March is the first month of year, September is the seventh - and the Latin for "seven" is "septem." Likewise for October, November, and December, "octo" being the Latin for "eight," "novem" for "nine," and "decem" for "ten." So September, October, November, and December were called that because they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year.

Anyway, March 1 was the first day of the year. According to general but apparently not universal agreement, in about 153 BCE the Roman Senate moved the first day of year to January 1 because that was the beginning of the civil year, the time that newly elected Roman consuls began their term in office, and it was convenient to have the traditional year and the civil year to start on the same day.

January is also a reasonable time for the new year among Romans because January was named for Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings, who had two faces so he could see both the past and the future. A good symbol for a time of transition.

That early Roman calendar was a lunar one, based on the cycles of the Moon. The problem is, the average lunar month is about 29 and a-half days and there is no way that can match with a solar year of roughly 365 and a-quarter days. You're going to be off by something like 12 days a year.

The calendar had 10 months and a 304-day year and didn't even count the days between the end of December and the beginning of the year at the vernal equinox in what is now March. It was reformed around 713 BCE to add the months of January and February, creating a year of 355 days, still 10 days off the solar year, which ultimately is the important one because the solar year is what drives the seasons. To correct this, the Romans from time to time inserted a leap month of about 22 days into February which served to overcorrect the disparity between the calendars, giving them some time before the error again got so big that another leap month was required.

Julius Caesar
By time of Julius Caesar, this business of having a calendar perpetually out of whack with the solar year had gotten, to say the least, tiresome. So in 46 BCE Julius Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar. This Julian calendar, as it came to be called, introduced the use of leap years to keep the calendar year from drifting too far from the solar year and came with a decree that firmly fixed January 1 as the start of the new year.

But after the Roman empire fell and Christianity began spread across Europe, there was a desire by the Catholic Church to actively downplay any connection to the "pagan," "unchristian" festivals such as those that had come to surround the new year in Rome.

So in 567, the second Council of Tours banned the use of January 1 as the first day of the new year. Remember, this is at a time in European history when the authority of the church in civil matters, not just religious ones, was all but unquestioned. The result was that in the Middle Ages in Europe, the official new year started at different times in different places, including December 25, by then commonly accepted as the day to note the birth of Jesus; the old day of March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation and right around the vernal equinox; and even Easter, even though that occurs on a different day year to year.

However, by the time the Council acted, the practice of keeping January 1 as New Year's Day was so well-established among the general populace that a lot of people ignored the new "official" date and kept to the older one for their own celebrations.

The Julian calendar also was flawed because the solar year is actually a few minutes shorter than 365 days and six hours, so the use of leap years every four years slightly over-corrects the difference. A few minutes may not seem like a big difference, but again the error accumulates over time and by the latter 1500s it had grown to 10 days.

Pope Gregory XIII
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII oversaw the design of a new, more accurate calendar, one which modified the use of leap years such that only those century years divisible by 400, not four, are leap years. Thus, 2000 was leap year, but 1900 wasn't and 2100 won't be. That still leaves a tiny difference but it will take over 3000 years for that error to build up to a single day.

Most significantly for our story here, Pope Gregory apparently knew a losing battle when he saw one and surrendered to tradition, restoring January 1 as the official New Year's Day for the church.

Catholic countries in Europe were quick to adjust their calendars to make the 10-day correction and to make January 1 their day for the start of the year, but Protestant ones did so only gradually, suspicious that the "Antichrist in Rome" - the Pope - was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days.

Some took a good number of years to come around. In fact, England, which had used March 25 as start of year since sometime in the 1100s, didn't finally make the change - along with the colonies, like us - to the Gregorian calendar and to using January 1 to mark the start of the year until 1752, 170 years later, by which time the disparity between the calendars had grown to 11 days.

As an aside, the story that riots that broke out when in September of that year several days disappeared from the Julian calendar still in use there in order to bring it in line with the Gregorian one is now believed by most historians to be a myth. Even so, it's clear that a good number of people were upset and thought the change directly and immediately impacted their lives, with some people even believing that their lives had been shortened by 11 days by the change. What's more, the change was still enough on people's minds two years later to have been an issue in the parliamentary elections of 1754.

Anyway, that's a story for another time.

So that's it: January 1 is 1st day of year not due to any special meaning or relevance of date itself, but due to convenience of Roman Senate, Julian calendar which almost no one uses anymore, and surrender of Pope Gregory XIII to persistence of tradition.

Happy New Year.

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