Starting the new year on the first of January feels counterintuitive. We mark a fresh beginning in the dead of winter, when the days are shorter and the nights are colder. Who can make major life adjustments right now? Bears are hibernating; nature — metaphorically (and sometimes literally!) — is asleep.
It’s not easy to pick a day to kick off another rotation around the sun. The way humans devised systems to track time has been a complicated and fraught affair borne out over millennia and influenced by religious traditions, politics, seasonal change and astronomical events.
But despite the various options at our avail our new year starts during a practical dead zone in the natural world. January is no time for renewal and rejuvenation. It’s a time for hunkering down, eating stores of food, and surviving — at least for those of us in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.
So, why do we celebrate the new year on Jan 1?
The emergence of Jan. 1
When the Romans used a lunar calendar, the year began in March, on the day the new consul took office. But by 153 B.C., with the addition of some months, consuls assumed office on Jan. 1.
There’s also some religious significance. As the Greek-born historian and philosopher Plutarch wrote, one explanation for the change invoked the legendary first king of Rome, Romulus, “a warrior and a lover of battle, and was thought to be a son of Mars,” who preferred March, named after … Mars.
But then a king named Numa, “a lover of peace and whose ambition was to turn the city toward husbandry and to divert it from war, gave precedence to January,” named after Janus, the god of gates and new beginnings, “a statesman and husbandman rather than a warrior.”
Caesar steps in to sort it out
The Roman system had some problems. By the time Julius Caesar came onto the scene, the lunar-based Roman calendar had fallen out of sync with the seasons, creating an organizational mess.
So with the help of an Alexandrian astronomer, and using the Egyptian solar calendar as a foundation, Caesar introduced what’s now known as the Julian calendar in about 46 B.C.
Like its Roman predecessor, it started in January.
Early Christians began to adopt the Julian calendar, but people started observing New Year’s Day at very different times: March 1, March 25 and Dec. 25 were all considered New Year’s Day during various periods and places in Medieval Europe.
Say hello to the Gregorian calendar
Caesar’s calendar length was a little off, too. By the 1500s, the vernal equinox had fallen back 10 days, to March 11, which was problematic for the church that used the equinox to figure out when to observe Easter. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a reform to fix the problem, and the resulting system — the Gregorian calendar — deleted some days from the calendar year and changed the way Easter was determined.
It also codified Jan. 1 as the official start of the new year, keeping with its predecessor (and also falling on the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ — happy new year!).
Not everyone was on board with this “New Style” calendar. Though Catholic states adopted it, Orthodox churches and Protestant states initially rejected the timetable in favour of the “Old Style” Julian calendar.
The British held out, too. Along with the American colonies. It wasn’t until 1752 when the Brits gave in to the Gregorian calendar and changed the New Year’s Day to Jan. 1.
So, what are our other options?
Many religious communities and cultures have their own calendars.
For instance, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah comes between September and October on the Gregorian calendar. The Coptic Church also observes new year in September. The Islamic new year fluctuates, thanks to the lunar nature of its calendar.
Many East Asian countries celebrate the Lunar New Year, a day that varies between January and February and coincides with the second new moon after the winter solstice. Lunar New Year historically came during a period of rest for Chinese farmers and served as a marker of the coming of spring.
Doesn’t spring — the very season of renewal — feel like a more natural time to kick off a year?
Persians and many others mark the new year on the first day of spring, in a festival called Nowruz. It coincides with the vernal equinox, which falls between March 19 and 21, when day and night are nearly identical in length due to the tilt of the earth.
Such new year’s days don’t always have fixed dates, per Gregorian terms. But dates also fluctuate on the Gregorian calendar, and some have proposed alternatives to address this; former NASA astrophysicist Richard Conn Henry has one idea that would keep dates consistent with the days of the week. Christmas and New Year’s Day would always be on a Sunday under the Hanke-Henry Calendar.
In practical terms, embarking on any major calendar change would require overhauling a system that dictates how the world’s economies and populations function. So, it’s probably not happening any time soon — certainly not this year.