Why the New Year begins on January 1 | Daily News


Why the New Year begins on January 1

January 1 can be a day of regret and reflection – did I really need that fifth glass of bubbly last night? – mixed with hope and optimism for the future, as we make plans to renew gym memberships or finally sort out our tax files. This January ritual of looking forward and backward is fitting for the first day of a month named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings.

Celebrating the New Year on January 1 is a civil event, not an astronomical one. And yet nature cooperates to make January 1 a satisfying time to start anew.

In Roman mythology, Janus was a king of Latium (a region of central Italy), who had his palace on the Janiculum hill, on the western bank of the River Tiber. According to the Roman intellectual Macrobius, Janus was given divine honours on account of his own religious devotion, as he set a pious example for all his people.

Janus was proudly venerated as a uniquely Roman god, rather than one adopted from the Greek pantheon. All forms of transition came within his purview – beginnings and endings, entrances, exits, and passageways. The name Janus (Ianus in Latin, as the alphabet had no j) is etymologically related to ianua, the Latin word for door. Janus himself was the ianitor, or doorkeeper, of the heavens.

The date of a new year isn’t precisely fixed by any natural or seasonal marker. Instead, our celebration of New Year’s Day on January 1 is a civil event. That’s despite the fact that, for us in the Northern Hemisphere where the amount of daylight has ebbed to its lowest point and the days are getting longer again, there’s a feeling of rebirth in the air.

Our modern celebration of New Year’s Day stems from an ancient Roman custom, the feast of the Roman god Janus – god of doorways and beginnings. The name for the month of January also comes from Janus, who was depicted as having two faces. One face of Janus looked back into the past, and the other peered forward to the future.

To celebrate the new year, the Romans made promises to Janus. From this ancient practice comes our tradition of making New Year’s Day resolutions.

The cult statue of Janus depicted the god bearded with two heads. This meant that he could see forwards and backwards and inside and outside simultaneously without turning around. Janus held a staff in his right hand, in order to guide travellers along the correct route, and a key in his left to open gates.

January 1 hasn’t been New Year’s Day throughout history, though. In the past, some New Year’s celebrations took place at an equinox, a day when the sun is above Earth’s equator, and night and day are equal in length. In many cultures, the March or vernal equinox marks a time of transition and new beginnings, and so cultural celebrations of a new year were natural for that equinox. The September or autumnal equinox also had its proponents for the beginning of a new year. For example, the French Republican Calendar – implemented during the French Revolution and used for about 12 years from late 1793 to 1805 – started its year at the September equinox.

The Greeks celebrated the new year on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Today, although many do celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, some cultures and religions do not. Jews use a lunar calendar and celebrate the New Year on Rosh Hashana, the first day of the month of Tishri, which is the first month of their calendar. This date usually occurs in September.

Most are also familiar with the Chinese New Year, celebrated for weeks in January or early February. In 2018, the Chinese New Year of the Dog begins on February 16.

By the way, in addition to the longer days here in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s another astronomical occurrence around January 1 each year that’s also related to Earth’s year, as defined by our orbit around the sun. That is, Earth’s perihelion – or closest point to the sun – happens every year in early January. In 2018, perihelion comes on January 3.

The reason to celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1 is historical, not astronomical. The New Year was celebrated according to astronomical events – such as equinoxes and solstices – eons ago. Our modern New Year’s celebration stems from the ancient, two-faced, Roman god Janus, after whom the month of January is also named. One face of Janus looked back into the past, and the other peered forward to the future.

Janus is famously associated with the transition between peace and war. Numa, the legendary second king of Rome, who was famed for his religious piety, is said to have founded a shrine to Janus Geminus (“two-fold”) in the Roman Forum, close to the Senate House. It was located in the place where Janus had bubbled up a spring of hot boiling water in order to thwart an attack on Rome by the Sabines.

The shrine was an enclosure formed by two arched gates at each end, joined together by walls to form a passageway. A bronze statue of Janus stood in the middle, with one head facing towards each gate. According to the historian Livy, Numa intended the shrine:

as an index of peace and war, that when open it might signify that the nation was in arms, when closed that all the peoples round about were pacified.

The gates of Janus are said to have stayed closed for 43 years under Numa, but rarely remained so thereafter, although the first emperor Augustus boasted that he closed the shrine three times. Nero later celebrated his conclusion of peace with Parthia by minting coins showing the gates of Janus firmly shut. 

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