So now the natural follow-up: Why is January 1 New Year's Day? Because that wasn’t always true. So why?
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, and spring is traditionally a time of beginnings, of renewals, of planting crops and the birth of new farm animals.
Some other ancient cultures used different days, but all had some astronomical or astrological significance:
The Egyptians used the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major or the Big Dog. This took place in mid-July and it predicted the annual flooding of the Nile, an event so important to their agriculture.
Persians used the vernal equinox; the Phoenicians, the autumnal equinox, which is the first day of fall; while the Greeks used the winter solstice, the first day of winter.
All these choices carried some meaning beyond the date itself. January 1 doesn’t. So why January 1?
An early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the first day of a new year. This 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, October, November, and December: octo being Latin for "eight," novem for "nine," and decem for "ten." Those months were named as they were because they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year.
That early Roman calendar was a lunar one, based on 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. And it is the solar year, not the lunar year, which drives the seasons.
The calendar 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. 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.
Next, according to general but apparently not universal agreement among historians, in about 153 BCE the Roman Senate moved first day of year to January 1 because that was beginning of the civil year, time that newly elected Roman consuls began their terms in office, and it was felt to be just more convenient to have the civil year and the legal year start on same day. January is also a reasonable time because January was named for Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings - that is, the god of all transitions - who had two faces so that he could see both the past and the future.
After the Roman empire fell, the generally-accepted year for that being 476, and as Christianity began spread across Europe, the Catholic church, which remember had previously adopted and adapted a fair part of the merry side of Saturnalia, now felt it was in a position to downplay "pagan," "unchristian" festivals such as those that had come to surround the new year in Rome.
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. If the church said do it, governments did it.
As a result, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the official new year started at different times in different places, including December 25, by then the traditional birthday 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 was a different day year to year.
But remember: Julius Caesar had set January 1 as New Year’s Day in 46 BCE - which means that by time the Council acted, the practice of keeping that as the first day of the year had been going on for 613 years and was so well established that a lot of people simply ignored the "official" date and kept to the older one.
|Pope Gregory XIII|
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII oversaw design of new, more accurate calendar, which changed the rule of leap years such that only century years divisible by 400, not 4, would be leap years, the better to prevent the over-correction of the Julian calendar. Thus, 2000 was leap year, but 1900 wasn't and 2100 won't be.
This still leaves a tiny over-correction but it will take over 3000 years for that error to build up to a single day, so nobody really cares.
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 adopt the new calendar, with Spain, France, and Italy doing so the year it came out. But Protestant ones did so only gradually, suspicious that the “Antichrist in Rome” was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days.
|A Happy and Peaceful Year to all|
There are tales of riots breaking out with people believing their lives would be 11 days shorter or that they had lost 11 days of wages. While such sentiments existed, historians now are of opinion that the story of riots is a myth. However, the change of calendar was an issue in the 1754 parliamentary elections so it's hard to credit the idea that there were no protests of any sort.
Anyway, that's it: January 1 is the first day of year not due to any special meaning or relevance of date itself, but due to the convenience of the Roman Senate, the Julian calendar which almost no one uses anymore, and the surrender of Pope Gregory XIII to persistence of tradition.
So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me and all the pagans out there, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.