Why is January 1st the First Day of the Year?

Happy Ne Year 2017 by Covi

Happy New Year, Cat Flaggers! 2016 is over, and 2017 has arrived! But… why? Why is January 1st the first day of the year? After all, the end of one year and start of another is a bit of an arbitrary distinction.

The calendar we Americans use, and most of the rest of the world also uses, is known as the Gregorian calendar. It was designed by two men, Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius, and proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The new calendar was immediately made the official calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and heavily-Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland. However, it was only gradually adopted by non-Catholic countries. Britain and her then-colonies in America didn’t switch to it until 1752, when George Washington was 20 years old. Russia didn’t start using it until 1918, Greece didn’t adopt it until 1923, and it wasn’t until 1926 that Turkey began to use it! Even today, three countries – Ethiopia, Iran and Afghanistan – have refused to use it.

It was the Gregorian calendar that standardized January 1st as the start of the new year. But again, the question is why. Well, the Gregorian calendar was based on the earlier Julian calendar, which was designed by none other than Julius Caesar and had been used in Europe since he proclaimed it throughout the Roman Empire in 45 BC. His calendar, in turn, was based on the ancient Roman calendar that Romans had been using for centuries before Caesar came along.

According to Roman traditional legends, the original calendar adopted at the foundation of Rome had 10 months – March, April, May, June, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. It was 304 days long, but had an odd feature – almost the entire season of winter wasn’t counted. The year would end and 51 additional days would pass before the next one would begin. Roman historians claimed that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added two months to account for those winter days: January (in honor of the Roman god Janus) and February (which would be honored by the Roman purification festival, Februa). It made sense for January 1st to be the start of the new year, since it celebrated the god of beginnings and transitions.

This revised Roman calendar was now 355 days long, but this meant seasonal festivals tied to solstices and equinoxes would quickly fall out of alignment, leading to such confusing situations as spring festivals being celebrated when it was still winter. So, Romans would periodically add an additional “bonus” month named Mercedonius of varying length to get everything back into alignment. Years that featured Mercedonius would be 377 or 378 days long. Rome’s leaders were supposed to study the stars and the seasons to decide when to add this bonus month, but instead they often added it in years where it wasn’t needed to extend their terms of office and those of their cronies. Julius Caesar’s new calendar ditched Mercedonius entirely, instead decreeing that every fourth year would be a “leap year” that gave an extra day to February, the shortest month. Later Roman emperors would also change the names of two of the months, Quintilis becoming July and Sextilis becoming August.

Obviously, this calendar survived the fall of the Roman Empire, in large part because Christians used it to calculate the dates of their most important holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. However, Christians were not so thrilled to honor a pagan god they didn’t worship by starting the year on the first day of his month. While the Roman Catholic Church continued to officially count January 1st as New Year’s Day, various countries started using other dates to start their years, such as Christmas or Easter. The French and English counted March 25, the date of the Annunciation, as New Year’s Day. In France, the New Year celebration lasted a whole week and ended on April 1st.

This brings me back to Pope Gregory XIII and his decision to change the calendar. It turned out Julius Caesar’s calendar reform wasn’t perfect. The orbit of the Earth around the sun is actually 365.25636 days, so having a leap year every four years, over the course of many centuries, caused the Julian calendar to go ever so slightly out of alignment with the seasons. The Gregorian calendar fixed this by having October 4, 1582, followed immediately by October 15, 1582, and then changing the leap year formula a bit. Years that are divisible by 100 (1700, 1800, 1900, etc.) would NOT be leap years, UNLESS they were ALSO divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc.). This simple(ish) change makes our calendar so accurate, it has an error of 1 day per 7,700 years.

Nothing in any of this required the new year to start on any particular day, but since the Catholic Church had always officially used January 1st, Pope Gregory XIII held that New Year’s Day on his calendar would continue to fall on that date. As country after country adopted his calendar, they also adopted his New Year’s Day. In so doing, they were essentially returning to an earlier tradition.

Interestingly, some have speculated that April Fool’s Day exists because of this change. The story goes that after France adopted the Gregorian calendar, Frenchmen who honored New Year’s Day on January 1st would play pranks on those who continued to celebrate it from March 25 to April 1st instead of getting with the times.

So, why do we celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st? Because the ancient Romans and the Catholic Church did. History can be funny like that.