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A new dawn, a new day, a New Year

A new dawn, a new day, a New Year

January. 2019.

A brand new year, a brand new day — clean and shiny, spotless and gleaming, hopeful and exciting. Untouched and unspoiled, like a present that has just been unwrapped. A time to look back on (and learn from) the mistakes of the previous year, and look forward with hope and resolution to the new days ahead. And as we celebrate, and hope, and resolve, and plan, we do so along with people all over the world, and down through the ages. In fact, people have been celebrating the beginning of the new year for over 4,000 years. So, who first celebrated New Year's Day? Why do we celebrate on Jan 1? 

Who first celebrated New Year's Day?

"The earliest recorded festivities in honor of a new year’s arrival date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness—heralded the start of a new year."

So, who moved the beginning of the new year to January 1?

That would be Julius Caesar. The early Roman calendar, which was created in the eighth century B.C. and celebrated the new year at the vernal equinox, had only 304 days, and had fallen out of sync with the sun. So, Caesar consulted with the best astronomers and mathematicians of the day, and introduced the Julian calendar, which is remarkably similar to the calendars used all over the world today. Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. 

Has January 1 been celebrated as New Year's Day since 46 B.C.?

Not exactly. "In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation)."

Who moved New Year's Day back to January 1?

Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582, and gave us the calendar we still use today — the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar was very similar to the Julian calendar; the difference was in how it calculated leap days. 

Leap days?

It takes our planet on average, approximately 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds (365.242189 days) to complete one full orbit around the Sun. 

In the Julian calendar, every four years is a leap year (with a leap day added to February). However, this turned out to be too often, and the Julian calendar got out of sync with the sun. So, the Gregorian calendar came up with a new formula for leap days, and it's a tricky one.
New formula for calculating leap years:

  1. The year is evenly divisible by 4;
  2. If the year can be evenly divided by 100, it is NOT a leap year, unless;
  3. The year is also evenly divisible by 400: Then it is a leap year.

Whew! That is a complicated formula. But it makes for a more accurate calendar. Currently, the Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar is not perfect either —  it is off by one day every 3,236 years (26 seconds per year). But we're in good shape for quite a while- until the year 4909. 

The transition from the Julian to Gregorian calendar was also tricky. To get the calendar back in sync with astronomical events like the vernal equinox or the winter solstice, a number of days had to be dropped.

In 1752, when the United States and Canada made the switch, 11 days had to be dropped from February (February 2 was followed by February 14, 1752!)

Does everyone celebrate the New Year on January 1?

Nope. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal and Saudi Arabia rely on a different calendar. 

Also, different religions also celebrate their New Year's at different times. For instance, the Jewish calendar is lunar, and its New Year's festival, Rosh Hashanah, is typically celebrated between September and October. The Islamic calendar is also lunar, and the timing of the new year can drift significantly. The Chinese calendar, meanwhile, is also lunar, but the Chinese New Year falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20.

But no matter when or how you celebrate, relish this fresh start. Welcome this new year, this clean slate, the things that have never been.