Friday, January 1, 2010

Ancient New Year's Resolutions and Celebrations

by Jean Henry Mead

New Year's resolutions date back to 153 BC when Janus, a mythical Roman king, was placed at the head of the calendar. Janus became an ancient symbol for resolutions at a time when Romans sought forgiveness from their enemies and exchanged gifts before the end of the year.

The first month was named by the Romans for Janus because he was the god who represented beginnings as well as doors and entrances. Because he had two faces, they imagined him looking back at the previous year on December 31 as well as ahead at the coming year. To celebrate the New Year, they exchanged branches from sacred trees for good luck. In later years, nuts and coins imprinted with Janus's image were traditional New Year's gifts.

However, January 1 has not always been observed as the beginning of a new year and still isn't in other parts of the world. Only those cultures that use a 365-day solar calendar observe the date. The first day of January began the New Year in 46 BC when Gaius Julius Caesar (pictured above) was responsible for the calendar that more accurately reflected the four seasons than those before it.

During the Middle Ages, Christians changed New Year's Day to December 25, the birth of Christ. They then changed his birthday to March 25, a holiday called the Annunciation. Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar during the sixteen century and the celebration of the New Year was returned to January 1.

Some cultures use a lunar calendar with less than 365 days because the months are based on the phases of the moon. The Chinese are among those who observe a lunar calendar. Their New Year begins with the first full moon after the sun enters Aquarius, between January 19 and February 21.

The New Year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon some 4,000 years ago. By 2000 BC, Babylonians celebrated the New year on what is now March 23, although they had no written calendar. Late March actually is a logical choice for the New Year because spring is when new crops are planted while the first of January has no astronomical or agricultural significance.

The Babylonian New Year celebration lasted for eleven days. Each day had its own special festivities. The Romans continued to observe the New Year on March 25, but their calendar was continuously tampered with by various emperors and soon became out of sync with the sun. In order to set the calendar straight, the Roman senate in 153 BC declared January 1 as the beginning of the New Year. But tampering continued until Julius Caesar in 46 BC established what became known as the Julian Calendar. In order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year continue for 445 days.

Since that time, leap year, or intercalary year, contains an extra day. In the case of lunisolar calendars a month is added to keep the calendar synchronized with the astronomical or seasonal year.

According the Wikipedia: "The Revised Julian calendar adds a day to February in years divisible by four, except for years divisible by 100 that do not leave a remainder of 200 or 600 when divided by 900. This rule agrees with the rule for the Gregorian calendar until 2799. The first year that dates in Revised Julian calendar will not agree with those in the Gregorian calendar will be 2800, because it will be a leap year in the Gregorian calendar but not in the Revised Julian calendar.

"This rule gives an average year 365.242222… days, a good approximation to the mean tropical year. But because the vernal equinox year is slightly longer, the Revised Julian calendar does not do as good a job as the Gregorian calendar of keeping the vernal equinox on or close to March 21."

Confused? So am I.

Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Great article, Jean. I had no idea that New Years was the first holiday.

Happy New Year to you, too!


Helen Ginger said...

Good gracious, Jean, you are a fountain of new knowledge. Very interesting.

Straight From Hel

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, our calendar is as imperfect as me. For as long as I've been around, we've been rounding the year up just like the IRS rounds up taxes. It isn't right, but it'll do. I guess it brings up the age-old question -- does anyone really know what time it is?

Beth Terrell said...

Fascinating article, as always. It's this sort of thing that makes worldbuilding for fantasy novels so hard.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words. I love research and anthropology. I'm amazed at how intelligent our distant ancestors were and how well they functioned without modern technology.


Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating, Jean - it just reminds me of how little I know. But it also reminds of the mystical nature of that passage from past to future which midnight on the 31st seems to capture - and yet all we have is a perpetual present. I love these unfathomable things.