Legalese — Why the New Year is January 1

new year january 1As I celebrated New Year’s Day with my family and friends, I got to thinking that this random date in the middle of winter seemed an odd time to celebrate the new year.  It is unconnected to the lunar cycle, it isn’t the start or end of a season.  Nothing begins or ends on January 1 except that we say it does.  So why does the year start on January 1?

Partly because Congress says so.  5 U.S.C. §6103 states that New Year’s Day, January 1 is a legal public holiday.  In Georgia, O.C.G.A. §1-4-1 adopts all federal holidays as state holidays.  So there.  It’s the law.  But why?

In the Jewish tradition, the O.G. of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the calendar puts the new year in the fall.  Rosh Hashonah (literally: the head of the year) is celebrated on the 1st day of the month of Tishrei, which is the 7th month of the year.  Why the 7th month of the ecclesiastical year?  There’s some debate, but it is the beginning of the agricultural year, and it is/was the beginning of the civil year.  Think of it as the ‘fiscal’ year having a different start than the calendar year.

The Chinese New Year, like the Jewish New Year, is also based on a lunar calendar.  It is celebrated on the new moon between the end of January and the end of February.

The Hindu New Year is celebrated at the same time as Diwali, usually somewhere from mid-October to mid-November, also coinciding with a lunar calendar.

Why is our secular calendar so different?  Historically, it all goes back to Julius Caesar.  Before him, the Romans used a 10-month lunar calendar that wasn’t always so steady.  Days were often added or subtracted for political purposes.  Somewhere around 45 B.C.E., Julius Caesar heeded the advice of scientists (imagine!) and decided to switch to a more reliable solar calendar of 365 ¼ days a year, with the occasional leap day.  He added a few months (included naming one after himself – hello July, my birth month) and so the world clicked on for a thousand years or more.

Some time in the middle ages the Julian calendar fell out of favor.  In the 1570’s, Pope Gregory got involved with the calendar and recalculated the year.  Julius Caesar’s calculations, while impressive for the time, were slightly off, and 10 days had to be added to make up for time.  They also realized that from time to time, leap years had to be skipped.  In 1582, the Gregorian solar calendar, the one we follow now, was instituted.  Coincidentally, this was right at the same time Galileo Galilei was making interesting (and true) observations about the sun and being excommunicated from the church for his efforts.  It is also fascinating that the Gregorian calendar was not universally accepted, and even in England was not used until around the time of the American Revolution.

All of which is a very long-winded and over-thought way for me to wish you a happy and healthy new year, filled with love and light and tons of belly laughs, whether you celebrate it now or some other time of the year.


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