As it happens with many long-lasting traditions, with time we tend to forget their origin stories. Across many countries of the world, we celebrate New Year’s Eve and then the arrival of the New Year on January 1st with a lot of fun, anticipation and, sometimes, a bit of sadness. But why do we stick to this date? What is so special about January 1st? Why do so many cultures consider it the beginning of a new annual cycle of our time-keeping?
It turns out, we can thank the Roman civilization for this. Of course, it is not the only New Year tradition in existence today (and has, by far, not been the only one in history). However, those of us across the world who celebrate the New Year at the stroke of midnight when December 31st turns into January 1st – we can wave to the long-gone ancient Roman culture whose legacy still influences us today.
The question of time-keeping has a very long history with humans. First recorded New Year festivals (and, thus, annual time-keeping cycle) are roughly 4,000 years old and come from ancient Mesopotamia. Their year started with the new moon after the spring equinox (when the night and day are of equal length, which happens two times, in March and in September). Ancient Egyptians celebrated the arrival of the New Year with the autumn equinox, and the early Greeks considered winter solstice as that special time when the old cycle ends and the new begins.
It makes sense that, at least initially, all time-keeping customs were paired with some actual, real-life phenomena. This was presumably especially important for agricultural communities that organized their lives in line with the sowing and harvesting seasons in their regions. Not something that is self-evident to a 21st-century city-dweller, right?
With the shift to a more solar rather than lunar focused time-keeping and with the growing need to elaborate more sophisticated time-keeping systems for increasingly complex societies, we approach the Roman civilisation. It is here that the tradition to count January 1st as the beginning of a new annual cycle was born. But why January? It isn’t linked to any particularly important agricultural or astronomical phenomena, as far as I can tell. In the Northern hemisphere, it is a cold month, some time after the winter solstice has already passed, so – what is so special about it?
The keywords here are symbolism and complexity. Ancient Romans were working on and reworking their calendar to have it in line with the solar cycle (or, as we now know, Earth’s cycle around the Sun), and to ensure a comprehensive and adequate time-keeping system for their vast empire. Needless to say, it was complicated. From roughly 8th century BCE until roughly mid-2nd century BCE their annual cycle had only 10 months, and their New Year began at the spring equinox (mid-March). Then they added two extra months to their calendar – January and February – with January 1st having received the honour of heralding the New Year. Approximately a century later, in the mid-1st century BCE, Julius Caesar introduced a reformed version of the calendar and the tradition of January 1st as the New Year’s day lived on (hence, the Julian calendar that was later changed to an improved Gregorian version – although in some countries, for instance in Russia, this happened only in the 20th century).
So far on complexity, but what about symbolism that explains the choice of January 1st? The name that the Romans chose for this one of the two extra months back in the 2nd century BCE (Januarius) was derived from the name of one of their gods – Janus. This was a god of beginnings and it had two faces. One of them looked back into the past and the second – forward into the future. Therefore, it seems that the whole month of January was deliberately introduced by the early Romans to serve two purposes: to help align their annual time-keeping system with the actual solar cycle (together with February) and, important for our topic here, to have a dedicated starting point of the whole year devoted to their symbol of leaving behind the old and entering the new. Our New Year’s resolutions tradition just got a whole new depth of meaning!
Happy and healthy New Year to us all and let’s keep exploring!