Why January 1st?

Free-New-Years-Clip-ArtDid you celebrate the New Year with fireworks and champagne this year or did you take a polar bear plunge into a freezing body of water? No matter how you celebrated, you probably did it on January 1st. While there are many different cultural celebrations of the New Year, our globalized world generally agrees that the New Year starts on January 1st. It may seem common to us now, but this date was not always standard.

There is evidence of New Year celebrations going back as far as 4,000 years ago to ancient Babylon. The Sumerians celebrated the New Year on the first new moon after the vernal equinox, which fell during our current month of March.  In addition to celebrating the spring sowing of barley, they also either crowned a new king or reaffirmed the current king during the New Year festivities. In ancient Egypt, the flooding of the Nile dictated the New Year, and in ancient China the New Year was on second new moon after the winter solstice.

Bust of the god Janus in the Vatican Museum.

Bust of the god Janus in the Vatican Museum.

So, how did we end up celebrating on January 1st? In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar decided to fix the fact that the current calendar had fallen out of sync with the sun. He consulted with the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time, including the Greek astronomer Sosigenes. Eventually, Caesar created the Julian calendar and on January 1st, 45 BCE he decreed that the next year would be 445 days long. This was afterward referred to as the “Year of Confusion” even though it was intended to clear things up. Consequently, January 1st became the first day of the New Year. He chose January because it was the month of the god Janus, who is depicted as having two faces, with one face looking front and the other looking back. To Caesar, this symbolized the transition from one year to the other.

Even after Caesar officially chose January 1st, not everyone celebrated on that day. Many groups used dates in March to celebrate the New Year. Some celebrated in March because it coincided with the spring equinox, others continued to celebrate on March 1st, which was the first day of the New Year in the original Roman calendar. As Christianity rose, Christian leaders wanted New Year’s Day to coincide more closely with their religion. They chose to celebrate the New Year on March 25th— the day of the Feast of the Annunciation. This practice continued throughout the Middle Ages.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII replaced the Julian calendar and established the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar the majority of the world adheres to today.  With his new calendar, he solidified January 1st as the date of the New Year. Still, it took many more years for January 1st to become the universally recognized start of the year and there are still many cultures that celebrate New Year’s on an alternative date in addition to January 1st.

Though we all have our own ways of celebrating and some of us even celebrate the New Year more than once per year, it is exciting to know that on January 1st we are connected to so many cultures around the world, all ushering in together  a new beginning.

One response to “Why January 1st?

  1. Pingback: Happy New Year from AntiquityNOW! | AntiquityNOW

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