Every year, since 46 B.C., the whole world welcomes a new year with a roar of fireworks, whistles and drums, hugs, toasts and especially wishes: it is January 1st, the first day of the year. Moreover The New Year has not always been celebrated on January 1st, between astronomical miscalculation, political changes and calendar confusion, the history of the firstday of the year is full of twists and turns.
Named after Janus, the god of time, endings and beginnings, the month of January is an invention of the ancient Romans. Indeed, the modern calendar used today in most of the world was born in the Roman Republic.
While humans have been dividing time on calendars for at least 2000 years, the methods used to do so have varied from the beginning. The Mesolithic peoples of Britain followed the phases of the moon. The ancient Egyptians observed the Sun. As for the Chinese, they combined these two methods to obtain a lunisolar calendar, still used today.
The reform of Julius Caesar
In ancient Rome, the lunar calendar was composed of 10 months and 355 days. The year began in March in honor to the god of war. It was not until 46 B.C. that the emperor Julius Caesar reformed the calendar to make January 1st the first day of a new year: the Julian calendar, based on the solar cycle, established a year of 365 days in 12 months. The Romans dedicate this day and the whole month to Janus, the god with two faces, one facing forward, the other facing backward. In Roman mythology, Janus is the god of two faces, of beginnings and ends, of transitions. One could even speak of a period of pause and reflection.
A calendar full of surprises
However, it was not until the 16th century that the first date of the year of the Gregorian calendar, still in force today, was agreed upon.
In 352 A.D., with Pope Liberus, the Catholic Church appropriated the date of January 1st and put forward the reason that it corresponds to the circumcision of Jesus, eight days after his birth.
But this date still does not manage to impose itself everywhere. Different customs still persist depending on the region: the beginning of the year is sometimes celebrated on December 25, sometimes on January 1 or March 1.
In France, it is only in 1564 that January 1st marks the beginning of the calendar year with the edict of Roussillon, promulgated by the king Charles IX.
The Gregorian reform
In 1582, it is Pope Gregory XIII who will generalize the New Year’s Day to January 1st in Catholic Europe, and establish the Gregorian calendar still in use today. This change which intervenes in the middle of the wars of religion was decided to correct the delay that took the Julian calendar on the Sun. At this time, the delay had already reached 10 days.
The leap years
The Gregorian calendar keeps the same structure as the Julian one. It is divided into 12 months of 4 weeks each and the countdown starts from the year of Christ’s birth. However this calendar has a difference: the appearance of leap years that correct the shift of the calendar on the dates of the equinoxes. Since the Julian calendar has a delay of 10 days, the transition between the two calendars is adopted as follows: the day after Thursday October 4, 1582 (Julian) becomes Friday October 15, 1582 (Gregorian).
January 1st as the first day of the year is still not the most shared thing by all. In China, for example, the New Year is celebrated between mid-January and mid-February of the Gregorian calendar. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, falls in September or October. Muslims celebrate the New Year in summer: the Islamic New Year changes from year to year because the Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar and not a solar one.