Celebrating January 1st as New Year’s Day… …but not always

While most of the world now celebrates New Year’s Day on January 1st, it was not always that way. If you had lived in Mesopotamia and Babylon 4,000 years ago (c. 2000 B.C.), you probably jan01stwould have celebrated the new year in mid-March, at the time of the Vernal (Spring) Equinox. If, however, you were an Egyptian, your new year began with the Autumnal Equinox and the flooding of the Nile. If you were Greek, the Winter Solstice began your new year celebrations. All these seasons reflected a time of renewal, re-birth and regeneration. However, it was secular, civic and religious influences that eventually changed most “new year” celebrations to January 1st.

Measuring time was, historically, determined by the easily observed cycles of the sun (solar), the moon (lunar) and of the regular occurrences of seasonal events that influenced agriculture. However, since solar, lunar and seasonal events were not consistent, formulating a reliable calendar evolved over eons.

The earliest known Roman calendar designated March as the beginning of the new year, on the Vernal Equinox – the beginning of spring and a time when warring could begin, again. Depending upon whether one focuses on Mars or Martius as the derivation of that month’s name, either interpretation is acceptable, as the return of spring begins a new crop season; and, with the winter ending, the weather was favorable for moving troops. Their calendar had ten named months, reflected in the historic, numerical names of six of the months. The origin of the names of the months were:

  • March – Mars, Roman god of war; or, Martius – Roman god of fertility and vegetation
  • April – perhaps derived from aperire – Latin from open; or, from Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty
  • May – Maia, Roman goddess of spring
  • June – Juno, principle Roman goddess of marriage and the well-being of women
  • July – originally Quintilis, Latin for 5th month, renamed for Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.
  • August – originally, Sextilis, Latin for 6th month, renamed for Augustus Caesar in 8 B.C.
  • Septemberseptem, Latin for 7
  • Octoberocto, Latin for 8
  • Novembernovem, Latin for 9
  • Decemberdecem, Latin for 10

Before 700 B.C. the calendar year began with the month of March, until the second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius, added the month of January and February. The month of January was named to honor Janus, a Roman god with two faces – one looking back and the other looking forward, signifying the old and the new. February is derived fromFebrua, the Roman festival of purification.

The new year was, eventually, moved from March to January because it was the start of the civil year, when elected consuls, the highest officials in the Roman republic, began their tenure.

Nevertheless, this new year date was not always observed, and in many places within the Roman empire, the new year continued to be celebrated on March 1.