Am I the only one who feels this sense that the New Year is not where it’s supposed to be? For most of us, here in a western nation, for all of our lives, January 1 has meant the New Year, new beginnings, a time for resolutions. But the simple fact is, nothing really begins on January 1. Nothing begins in January at all–it stands in the middle of the winter, not the month when astronomical or meteorological winter begins, and not the month when the thaw begins to set in. Just there in the middle.
This is all a matter of history. If you’ve never read about how the Calendar was developed, you should look it up. It’s quite an interesting and convoluted tale. It wasn’t easy getting it right, and as Leap Year should prove, it will never be truly ‘right.’
For our purposes, it’s important to know that the oldest Roman calendar counted only 300 days, leaving the months we know as January and February as a vague, undefined time spent waiting for the spring equinox. This was reformed by Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, creating a lunar year of 354 days, to which he added one more day, simply because Romans were superstitious about even numbers. Rome’s priests administered this clunky calendar and added intercalary months from time to time to keep the year somewhat on track with the passing seasons and the solstices and equinoxes. But like all priestly classes, they were highly politicized, and did things like lengthening the years of senators they liked and shortening the years of others.
By the time Julius Caesar came to power, the Roman year was a mess, and running months ahead of the actual seasons. Using a model developed by Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, he decreed the new calendar, which came to be known as the Julian calendar. It was a 365 day calendar, with one day added every fourth year. Sound familiar? But Caesar also changed the beginning of the year. January 1 brought the year closer to the winter solstice, which is good, but why not just put it at the solstice? It is also said that Caesar chose January for the beginning of the year in honor of Janus, the deity who blessed successful military endeavors. Whatever Caesar’s reasons, he was the man in charge, and so the year was set according to his wishes.
Centuries later, Pope Gregory was to once again reform the calendar, giving us what we call the Gregorian calendar, though his reform was minor by comparison to Caesar’s, and notably left the New Year date intact. I find it odd that, given the chance (and the power) to reform the calendar, a Christian pontiff would not try to remove some of its vestiges of paganism. Not that I really care about such things. I like the way the history of Western Civilization can almost be tracked by reference to the names of the months and the days of the week.
What I do care about is that every year we celebrate new beginnings on a date on which nothing really begins. In our technological, artificially sheltered society, there are very few places or times where our lives run in unison with the seasonal cycles. In a sense, there is no beginning of the year–it is a perpetual circle of change, of decline and rebirth, and we are just along for the ride. But it seems that if there is a basic human need to declare a date when the cycle is beginning, we could at least put it on a date when something in the natural year occurs. I would suggest the spring equinox, where many cultures do place their New Year. But another candidate might be the autumnal equinox, given that there is among human beings an almost universal feeling of things starting over when the autumn comes around.
Then maybe it might work better when people make resolutions to do new and important things with their lives. Quit smoking, or lose weight, or go back to school. Grand, salubrious intentions that mostly fall by the wayside in the bitter cold and storm time of January. January is a month that challenges our resolve just to keep going: it is scarcely a time for new resolutions. It is, simply put, the wrong month for the New Year.
I would entertain a motion to change it.