celebration of the new year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first
observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. In the years around
2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon (actually
the first visible cresent) after the Vernal Equinox (first day of
spring). This coincided with approximately 23rd-25th March on the Julian
The beginning of spring
is a logical time to start a new year. After all, it is the season of
rebirth, of planting new crops, and of blossoming. It symbolized new
growth and a time to look forward to the future - the same meaning that
the new year holds for people today. January 1, on the other hand,
has no astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely
new year celebration lasted for eleven days. Each day had its own
particular mode of celebration, but it is safe to say that modern New
Year's Eve festivities pale in comparison. The
Romans continued to observe the new year in late March, but their
calendar was continually tampered with by various emperors so that the
calendar soon became out of synchronization with the sun.
In order to set the
calendar right, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be
the beginning of the new year. The acceptance of the changed date
was delayed. This might be due to some of its arbitrary nature that we
have already pointed out. The date was unusual. For, unlike the customs
prevalent till then, no agricultural or seasonal significance was
attached to it. Instead, it was just a civil date, the day after the
elections when the consuls would assume their new positions in the Roman
empire. But the bigger problem the changed date posed, was difficulties
in the calculation of the year. As the Romans moved their New Year's Day
backward almost three months to January 1, we have irregularities in our
calendar. The months of September, October, November and December,
originally mean, the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month
respectively. Later, many of the Roman emperors had given new names to
these months. September received names as "Germanucus", "Antonius"
and "Tacitus" under each of these emperors' regime. Thus
November also earned the varying names of "Domitianus", "Faustinus"
inconveniences led Julius Caesar to institute a new calendar. It was
devised by the Greek astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria from the
unrivaled Egyptian solar calendar. Caesar wanted to change the date
of the New Year from January 1 to a more logical date - to one of the
solstices or equinoxes. However, it happened that January 1 of 45 B.C.
was the date of a new moon and to change it would have been to invite
bad luck according to the prevalent beliefs. Infact in order to
synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous
year drag on for 445 days.
For his calendar
reform, the Senate rewarded him by having the month of his birth,
Quintilis, renamed "July" in his honor. Caesar's grandnephew,
the Emperor Augustus, had a similar honor bestowed on him when he
corrected a mistake which had crept into the calculation of the leap
year. Till then it had been observed every three years, instead of every
four. He abolished all leap years between 8 B.C. and A.D. 8. Thus he set
the calendar straight and earned for himself the renaming of Sextilis as
In early times, the
ancient Romans gave each other New Year's gifts of branches from sacred
trees. In later years, they gave gold-covered nuts or coins imprinted
with pictures of Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. January
was named after Janus, who had two faces--one looking forward and the
other looking backward. The Romans also brought gifts to the emperor.
The emperors eventually began to demand such gifts. But the Christian
church outlawed this custom and certain other pagan New Year's practices
in A.D. 567.
As the Catholic Church
expanded, it was strongly opposed to the celebration of the Roman's New
Year, and denounced it as paganism. However, as Christianity became more
widespread, the religious observances of the Catholic Church began to
coincide with many of the pagan celebrations. On January 1, while the
Romans celebrated the New Year, the Catholic Church worshipped what is
still observed by some denominations today as the Feast of Christ's
Circumcision. The Church continued to condemn the celebration of the New
Year throughout the Middle Ages. It wasn't until the late 1500s that
January 1 became the official holiday celebrated by Western nations.
It was Pope Gregory XIII in
1582 AD who incorporated our present method of calculation and dividing the
year. It was the Pope who reinstituted the practice of observing New Year's Day
on January 1, regardless of the pre-Christian associations with that date. The
Gregorian reforms also canceled ten days from October; Thursday, October 4,
1582, was followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. the old discrepancy was provided
for by making only those century dates leap years that were that were divisible
by 400. Thus although the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, the
The global adoption:
Catholic countries adopted it soon. Yet it took some time for the Protestants to
follow suit. Finally Germany did adopt it in 1700, Great Britain in 1752, and
Sweden in 1753. It was then necessary to drop 11 days from the calendar because
1700 had been a leap year.
The Oriental countries through the influence of religious groups such as the
Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists and Moslems, considered the new Calendar as the
Christian Calendar, but also adopted it as their official one. Japan welcomed it
in 1873 and China in 1912.
The Eastern Orthodox adopted it even later, in 1924 and 1927, Russia took it
twice - first in 1918 and after trying out its own calendars, again 1n 1924.