New Year’s Eve was a huge success at Times Square in New York. Over 100,000 people almost froze to death waiting several hours in the rain for the ball to drop at midnight. Personally, I would prefer to miss the excitement.
Most holidays celebrate something special: Veterans, Martin Luther King, the founding of our country, the birth of Jesus. But New Year’s Day is different. There is no rhyme or reason to start the year on January 1. I always wonder, “Why do we bother to celebrate a completely artificial holiday?” In fact, why do we separate time into years, centuries, and millenniums?
The simple answer to the first question is that humans like to celebrate things. Changing the calendar from one year to another can be as good an excuse for a party as any other. But that raises other questions, “Why do we change the year on January 1?” and “Why did we start the numbering of the years at 2019 years ago?”
The year itself is a natural event. It measures one complete revolution of the earth around the sun. Based on that fact there are only four natural dates to start the year: the winter solstice (when the days are the shortest), the summer solstice (when the days are the longest), the vernal equinox (when the direct rays of the sun move from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern, signaling warmer days ahead in the Northern Hemisphere), and the autumnal equinox (when the rays move from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern). January 1 is fairly close to the winter solstice and may be the date when some of our distant ancestors recognized that the days were getting longer. However, there is no natural reason to start the year a few days after that solstice.
Speaking of our distant ancestors, we tend to think that because we have better science and, possibly, a more sophisticated culture, that we are more intelligent than they were. That is not true in any sense. People 20,000 years ago had the same brain power that we have and were able to use it to solve the problems that they faced. By 4,000 B.C. they had figured out that the year had about 365 days. In some cultures they developed a calendar with 12 months of either 30 or 31 days with a couple of “slack” days they could add in as needed to make their festivals work out correctly. They built primitive “observatories” of stone to tell when the sun’s rays at an equinox passed through narrow channels.
The ancient Egyptians corrected the earlier calculations to know that the year consisted of 365 1/4 days. Unfortunately, they did not have a leap day every four years but let the quarter-days accumulate.
When Julius Caesar took control of the Roman Empire, he inherited a mess with respect to dates. The calendar in use was based on a mixture of lunar and yearly cycles and was difficult to use. He consulted an astronomer who suggested a calendar similar to the one that we use today: 365 days in the year with a leap year every four years. That calendar was used in Europe and later in the Americas for about sixteen hundred years. By that time astronomers had made a more accurate measurement of the revolution of the earth about the sun and found that the dates of Christmas and some other Christian holidays were off by several days. Pope Gregory commissioned a group of astronomers to reform the calendar. They dropped several days out of the calendar and decided that Century Years should be leap years only when the year number is divisible by 400. For example, 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was. They also moved the date of the New Year to January 1 from March 25.
It took several hundred years for the Gregorian calendar to be used universally. For example, George Washington’s birthday frequently is given two ways: Old Style (Julian Calendar): February 11, 1731 and New Style (Gregorian Calendar): February 22, 1732. Dates between January and March were moved up a year during the transition.
The fact that our current year is numbered 2019 had its roots in Christian theology. In the year 525 the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus felt that it was morally wrong to measure dates from the reign of a Roman emperor who had persecuted Christians and decided that years should be numbered from the birth of Jesus. Basing his calculations on some statements in the Gospel of Luke, he decided when Jesus was born and started numbering from that date. This was the Anno Domini (In the year of the Lord) system abbreviated A. D. Unfortunately his calculations were not compatible with other Christian writings. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great tried to kill the newborn Jesus. Since Herod died four years before the year 1 A.D., this means that at least 5 years should be added to the year number if we want to base the birth of Jesus on Matthew instead of Luke.
The names of the months are a curious mishmash: January (named for the Roman God Janus), February (named for the Roman festival period of Februalia), March (Roman God Mars), April (named after aperire, the time for buds to open in the spring), May (Roman Goddess Maia), June (Roman Goddess Juno), July (named for Julius Caesar, who reformed the calendar and, apparently, named the month for himself), and August (named for Caesar Augustus). The last four months are simply given numbers based on their positions in the Julian calendar. Remember that the first month was March, not January. September (In Latin septem = seven), October (octo = eight), November (novem = nine), and December (decem = ten)
Several people have mentioned that since many of our holidays have been redefined to occur on weekends, it is a nuisance to have Christmas and New Years on weekdays. I would not be surprised if, in the future, there might be a movement to move those holidays to the weekend as well. Christmas would not be too much of a problem once we got used to the idea – after all, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and always occurs on a Sunday, so why not Christmas? However, it would make an interesting calendar if the first day of the year was always on a weekend. I assume New Year’s would be on a Saturday so that we could sober up on Sunday.