Why do we celebrate the New Year on January 1?

28 Dec 2021

As far as astronomy is concerned, there is no reason to celebrate the New Year on the first of January. Let’s explore this idea a little further and find out why that is exactly.

One might wonder why this is

Well, to begin with, nothing truly special happens in space, nor here on Earth on January 1st. The celebration of the New Year is, therefore, a purely human phenomenon.

With the hope that the next period of life will be better, easier, and more beautiful, people have been waiting for the next year since time immemorial, offering sacrifices to the gods and arranging feasts.

As seen historically

The historical question, however, is when the New Year begins.

It makes sense for it to be on the day of the winter solstice, because after that, the day becomes longer and the night shorter. This is how the Hellenes, and the Old Slavs did it.

But the Babylonians and, in the beginning, the Romans, celebrated the New Year somewhere around the spring equinox, which is also not a bad solution, because it is the time when nature begins to wake up and the days become longer than the night. The Assyrians again believed that the years change in September, when the autumn equinox passes.

We are still indecisive

The question of when the next year will start has not been resolved globally even today. The Jews celebrate it on September 6, the Chinese somewhere in late January or early February (in any case, it is celebrated for two weeks). The Orthodox adhere to the old calendar, so they celebrate the New Year on January 14.

But finally, why January 1st?

The second of the seven Roman kings, Numa Pompilius, is to blame for everything. Until his reign, the Roman calendar had ten months, 30 or 31 days each month, and the year began on March 1.

Since these ten months with 304 days in total, which is how long the year lasted according to that calendar, were not enough to fit the whole solar year, Numa Pompilius ordered a reform. As a result, two more months were added to the calendar: January and February before March.

January was dedicated to Janus, the god of all beginnings. It is logical that the deity of the beginning cannot have his month at the end of the year. Since then, October, although its name says that it’s the eight, it became the tenth month. Likewise, December (tenth) became the twelfth.

But that was not the main problem. That calendar had 355 days, while the solar year lasts 365 days (and a few hours) and the Romans often had to “patch up” their calendar by inserting an additional month from time to time. This led to the fact that the common man was never sure what the date was, or even what year.

The Julian Calendar

The issue had to be fixed somehow. That was done in the year 45 BC. when a new calendar was introduced. Julius Caesar, who otherwise knew astronomy well, invited the renowned Alexandrian astronomer, Sosigen, to compile a new calendar.

According to ancient Egyptian accounts, Sosigen assumed that the year lasted 365 days and 6 hours, and on that basis, he compiled a calendar which later, according to Caesar, was called the Julian calendar.

It wasn’t a bad calendar. The year according to that calendar lasted only 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the real year.

One might say that this rather trivial. But that small difference increased in the 16th century to ten days.

The Gregorian Calendar

In order to harmonize the calculation of time with the phenomena in nature, in 1582, by order of Pope Gregory XIII, a new calendar was made, the one we still use today. That calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar (after Pope Gregory), took over all the months of its predecessor, and with them also accepted the celebration of the New Year on January 1.

This calendar was first accepted by Catholic countries, and then it began to spread around the world. According to the Gregorian calendar, a year lasts 365.2422 days, which is a precision that allows us to be peaceful for several millennia. This is because the tropical year lasts 365.242199 days and the difference is not big.

There are, however, other problems with this calendar. Months have different numbers of days, the number of weeks in quarters and semesters is different, days in a week fall on different dates, and so on.

If one year January 1 falls on a Friday, the next it will fall on a Saturday. For many reasons, it would be good for each date to have its own days.

But this would not really be worth mentioning if there wasn’t a much more perfect calendar than the Gregorian one. It is the Revised Julian calendar that is ten times more precise, and it has solved some problems of the current calendar. The New Julian calendar was compiled by Milutin Milanković. But we’ll talk more about that some other time.