By John Copeland
Would you believe January was not always the first month of the year? In terms of human history, even celebrating New Years on Jan. 1 is a relatively new phenomenon. And yet, celebrating the start of the new year is perhaps the oldest of all humanity’s holidays.
Ancient Babylon cuneiform clay tablets, discovered in Iraq and dated to 2000 BCE, are the earliest record of festivities in honor of the arrival of the new year. However, the Babylonian New Year began with the first visible crescent moon after the Spring Equinox. In ancient Babylon, the New Year festival, Akitu, was celebrated for 12 days. These cuneiform tablets revealed that the Akitu celebration was the most significant observance of the year.
Several other ancient cultures celebrated their New Year on other dates tied to the seasons. The Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians began their new years with the fall equinox, and the Greeks celebrated theirs on the winter solstice.
India and Iran celebrate their New Year in March. Ancient Hebrews celebrated New Years in the fall at Rosh Hashanah and even today, Jews worldwide still observe this. Ancient Celts and other northern European cultures celebrated their New Year beginning at dusk on Oct. 31. One quickly gets the idea that New Year’s is among the oldest and most persistent of human celebrations.
These various dates for New Year’s Day begs the question: How did January become the first month on our calendar and the beginning of our New Year? As a day, Jan. 1 has no astronomical or agricultural significance for beginning the year. However, like many of our festivities throughout the year we can blame the Romans. In fact, the month of January did not even exist until around 700 BCE, when the second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius, added the months of January and February to the Roman calendar.
The month of January is associated with the god Janus. Janus was the one Roman god that had no Greek counterpart. In prayers, his name was evoked even before that of Jupiter. According to some, he was the custodian of the universe but, to the Romans, he was the god of beginnings and endings, presiding over every entrance and departure. Because every door or passageway looks in two directions, Janus is always depicted as two-headed: one face looks back into the past, the other peers forward to the future.
In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar, introducing a new, solar-based calendar that was a vast improvement over the ancient Roman calendar, which had become wildly inaccurate over the years. The Julian calendar decreed that the new year would occur with Jan. 1. Within the Roman Empire, Jan. 1 was observed as start of the new year.
After Rome’s decline and Christianity’s spread through Europe, the church considered New Year’s celebrations to be pagan and unchristian. In 567 CE the Council of Tours abolished Jan. 1 as the beginning of the year. Throughout Medieval Christian Europe, the New Year was celebrated on a variety of dates: Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; and Easter. Back then, there was no uniform calendar.
But, during the late 1500s, at the urging of Pope Gregory XII, Aloysius Lilus came up with a modification to the Julian calendar making it more accurate. Named the Gregorian calendar, after the pope, it is the calendar most of the world still follows today. The Gregorian calendar restored Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and the American colonies, still celebrated the new year in March.
For us in the Northern Hemisphere, January is a logical time for a new beginning. On the December solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, we experience the shortest day of the year. By the beginning of January, our days are lengthening again. This return of longer hours of daylight had a profound effect on cultures that were tied to agricultural cycles. It even exerts an emotional effect on people living in cities today.
I think the ancient Romans were on to something with Janus. As the god of new beginnings, gates and doors, the first hour of the day, the first day of the month, and the first month of the year, Janus is a good symbol for starting the New Year. He looks forward to the future of the coming year and back in contemplation to the year just past.
Now that makes me think about New Year’s resolutions. Do you make them? It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions, and people all over the world have been making and breaking them ever since.
The Romans had a similar tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. A common resolution in ancient Rome was to ask forgiveness from enemies of the past year.
Early Christians believed the first day of the New Year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the New Year.
Whether or not our ancestors took their resolutions seriously and always achieved what they resolved to do is unknown. Today, when we make resolutions, we’re tapping into that ancient and powerful human longing for a fresh start.
And then there is putting the past year to rest.
Any regrets about the past year? To help focus on the future, write down your regrets on a scrap of paper and toss it in the fire. Janus, the two-faced god of the New Year, would approve!