AUSTIN (KXAN) – It happens like clockwork every year, literally: New Year’s Day. Every culture on Earth celebrates the New Year at some point. In the United States, we celebrate January 1st. But why this day when there are so many other suitable days?
“The months of the year tend to be really arbitrary depending on the culture,” said Brent Landau, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Texas. “A really interesting feature of life on Earth is that we have these different seasons.”
Landau says that for some cultures, the new year begins when the seasons change.
“Some cultures have chosen to start their new year on an equinox, which makes a lot of sense,” he explained. The spring and autumn equinoxes are the only days of the year when we have the same amount of sunshine as at night. While winter and summer solstices are the shortest and longest days of the year.
“What we’re doing is we’re starting closer to the start of winter. It’s the winter solstice,” Landau said.
But, our calendar year begins more than a week after the solstice. Why is that?
Why is our year 365 days?
“January 1 has become our New Year’s Day thanks to the great chain of relays in history,” said Kevin S. Lee, a graduate student studying ancient cultures at the University of Texas. According to Lee, the solar calendar we use today was first developed by the ancient Egyptians.
A solar calendar is based on the time it takes Earth to orbit the Sun. A solar year is not perfect. It takes 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 46 seconds for this orbit to complete.
During this time, the moon goes through twelve lunar phases, which is why we have twelve months. A moon phase is the time it takes for the moon to change from new to full to new. It takes about 29 days for this to happen.
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There isn’t really a solar start to the year, the closest times would be the start of the seasons, which brings us back to why start the year on January 1st.
The ancient Romans originally had ten months, with the year beginning in March, named after Mars the god of war. When they realized that there were actually twelve lunar cycles in a year, they added two months: January and February.
“The Romans had previously made January 1 the first day of their civic year,” Lee said. “It was the day they took the oath of consuls, the annually elected principal magistrates of the Roman Republic.” Basically, the year started on inauguration day.
For the Romans, their inauguration day was originally in March, much closer to the vernal equinox. However, Lee said a crisis forced the country to postpone its elections for two whole months until January 1. This is why December, which translates to the 10th month, is now our 12th month.
Fix the schedule
The Egyptian calendar is not perfect. At the time of Julius Caesar, several days had been lost. Remember that a solar year is not a perfect 365 day period. Caesar ordered that the calendar be revised. (It would later be revised again in the 1500s, that is, when a leap year was added to account for the imperfect solar year.)
Caesar maintained the start of the year in January. Partly by tradition and partly because January is named after the Roman god of beginnings, Janus. However, the day has still not fallen on the solstice.
“By the time they sort of sorted this all out, the calendar days had kind of bounced around enough that everybody was like, okay, we got it, that’s pretty close,” Landau said. .
Not everyone celebrates the New Year on January 1st
Despite all this maneuvering and calendar hopscotch, many cultures around the world still celebrate their New Years at different times. Chinese New Year follows a lunar calendar and begins between late January and early February. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in September.
“If we were ancient Babylonians, we would celebrate the New Year around mid-March. If we were Greeks living in ancient Athens, between July and August. If we were, if we were ancient Egyptians, Assyrians or Persians, usually mid-September to late September,” Lee said.
Finally, until revisions to the calendar in the 1500s, many European Christians celebrated the New Year closer to the vernal equinox on March 25. This was done because it was exactly nine months before Christmas when Christ was born.