Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

It might as well be a new year

By Daniel Deagler A few years ago, my daughter was watching a TV show about the Chinese New Year, and she asked me a sensible question: Why were the Chinese celebrating their new year in February?

By Daniel Deagler

A few years ago, my daughter was watching a TV show about the Chinese New Year, and she asked me a sensible question: Why were the Chinese celebrating their new year in February?

That raises another question: Why do we celebrate ours in January?

Unlike many of our holidays, the first day of January doesn't coincide with any event in the agricultural cycle. It isn't a solstice, equinox, or cross-quarter day (one that's halfway between a solstice and an equinox). Jan. 1 just kind of sits there a week after Christmas, providing one last shebang before we are forced to look winter right in the teeth.

January is named after Janus, the Roman god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and transitions. Janus has two faces, one looking backward and the other forward. He sees not only where we've been, but where we're going.

It seems pretty clever of those ancient Romans to name the first month of the year after the god who can see both the year gone by and the year yet to come. Sadly, though, they didn't. March was the first month of the Roman calendar; January was the 11th.

January, after all, is preceded by December, which means "10th month" and is preceded by November ("ninth month"), October ("eighth month"), and September ("seventh month"). This tidy sequence was botched and never corrected.

Originally, the Roman calendar had 10 months. The first four were named for gods or concepts, and the other six for numbers: Martius (for Mars, the god of war), Aprilis (from the Latin aperire, "to open"), Maius (from the Greek fertility goddess Maia), Junius (for Juno, wife of Jupiter), Quintilius, Sextilius, September, October, November, and December. (Quintilius would later be renamed Julius, for Julius Caesar, and Sextilius would become Augustus, for Augustus Caesar.)

Sixty-one days of winter did not fall within the calendar; they were apparently not worth naming. (So, if your birthday happened to fall in what is now January and February, no cake for you.) The months Ianuarius and Februarius (from februum, "purification") were affixed to the end of the year, supposedly, in 713 B.C.

That February was the last month added explains why it has the fewest days and is subject to leap-year adjustment. But how did January go from being No. 11 to No. 1?

The answer is a little dull: The Romans began their civil year with the swearing in of the two Roman consuls. The consuls assumed office on March 15, which was the beginning of their year. But because of some problem in Spain in 153 B.C. (the nature of which seems to have been lost to time), the consuls assumed office on Jan. 1 so that the first consul, Quintus Fulvius Nobilior, could get to Spain as quickly as possible. Henceforth, all consuls and magistrates assumed office on Jan. 1.

This is what made January the first month. Well into the Middle Ages, though, New Year's Day was observed on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. It wasn't until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a tweaking of the Julian calendar and created the modern Gregorian calendar, that the start of the liturgical year was moved from the Feast of the Annunciation to the Feast of the Circumcision, Jan. 1. This is what finally made Jan. 1 New Year's Day (though Protestant countries would not adopt the Gregorian changes for more than a century.)

If it seems arbitrary, that's because it is. But any day picked by humans would be arbitrary.

We moderns tend to think linearly, as if the pages of the calendar could be pinned up one after another on an infinite clothesline. But the year is not a line; it's a ring. And like all rings, it has no beginning or end. We can decide that this or that spot is the beginning of the ring, but it's a fiction - a fiction we need because, although the year is a ring, our lives are not.

And so a New Year's toast: to Janus, who sees where we've been and knows where we're going; to Quintus Fulvius Nobilior and his business trip to Spain; to Gregory and his calendar; and to all of us in our journey through the part of the ring we will call 2012.