I think that New Year’s Day must be my least favorite holiday. The problem is the date, January 1. This has to be the worst time to start off the new year. It is only a week after Christmas. All the excitement of the Christmas season has dissipated and there is a general impression of anti-climax. The holidays are over and it is time to go back to the general routine of everyday life. In addition, January is the coldest, dreariest month of the year and January 1 is right in the middle of winter. I know that winter officially begins on the winter solstice, December 21 or 22, but in midwestern North America, the cold weather begins about a month or more before the solstice. It is possible to forget the dreariness of winter during the Christmas season, but by January, it feels that winter has been here forever and will never end.
It seems to me that it would be better to start the new year at the transition between one season and the next, preferably when winter becomes spring. What would be more appropriate than to start the new year at the beginning of Spring, when the cycle of nature is renewed and new life springs up? Spring is a time of new hopes and beginnings, so why not start the new year at the vernal equinox, March 21? If starting the new year at the beginning of a month seems weird, why not start the new year on March 1 or April 1? Well, maybe starting the new year on April Fool’s Day is not such a good idea. Why do we start the new year on January 1 anyway?
We have the Romans to thank for the date of New Year’s Day. as well as for our calendar, which is derived from the ancient Roman calendar. Originally, the Roman calendar did have March as the first month of the year. According to Roman legend, Rome’s founder Romulus established a ten-month calendar, beginning in March and extending to December. This is why our ninth through twelfth months, September to December have names meaning seventh through tenth months. Obviously, this ten-month calendar didn’t work out at all, so Romulus’s successor, Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added the months of January and February.
It is not clear how true these legends are, but the twelve-month calendar attributed to Numa was used until Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BC. At first, the year continued to start in March, but during the republic, new consuls began their terms of office on the kalends, or first day, of January, named for Janus the double-headed god of new beginnings. The Romans did not number their years forward from a past year, as we do, Instead, they named each year after the consuls who served for that year. So, instead of a particular year being 132 since whatever, it would be the year Titus Maximus and Gaius Flavius were consuls. For this reason, it seemed to make sense to start the new year with the beginning of the consuls’ terms, and January first gradually became accepted as the first day of the new year, and when Julius Caesar introduced his Julian calendar, the first of January was officially established as the new year.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, New Year’s Day began to be seen as a holdover from Rome’s pagan past, and a variety of dates were used as New Year’s Day, including Christmas, March 1, and March 25. Calendars still began with January, however, leaving the actual date the new year began up to whoever had the calendar. January 1 was restored as New Year’s Day when Pope Gregory XIII promulgated the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. As the Gregorian Calendar became established as the most widely used calendar in the world, January 1 became the first day of the year worldwide. This means thanks to the Romans and Pope Gregory XIII we are stuck with the new year starting in the dead of winter, instead of spring, and there is nothing I can do about it.