The onset of spring, summer, fall, and winter every year is precisely measured, depending on the sun’s position. But there’s no similar astronomical or scientific reason for celebrating New Years on January 1.
Many people don’t. The Chinese New Year occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice, between late January and mid-February. Muslims mark the occasion on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. That calendar is based on the lunar cycle, 11 or 12 days shorter than the solar calendar. So their New Year comes a little earlier every year. Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, is a two-day observance that begins 163 days after Passover and varies between September 5 and October 5. Unlike other New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is holy, a time for piety rather than parties.
There was just as much variation in ancient times. In Babylon, the first new moon after the vernal equinox marked the New Year. Egyptians celebrated it in early August, when the annual Nile River flooding began. In Greece, Athens and Sparta couldn’t get along, so their respective new years didn’t occur at the same time. In Athens, it was the first new moon after the summer solstice, while the Spartans waited until early fall.
So how did January 1 become the most widely accepted start of the New Year? The answer: Julius Caesar. For centuries, the Roman calendar was in a state of chaos, with the number of days in the year fluctuating widely. In 46 BCE, Caesar worked with the brightest Egyptian astronomers to retool the calendar. He wanted the year to begin on the first of January, a month named after the god Janus. Janus had two faces: one looking backward (at the year just ending) and the other facing forward. For the Romans, it was party time!
Caesar didn’t stick around very long after his innovation. On the Ides of March—March 15, 44 BCE—he went to the Roman Senate as usual. While one senator distracted him, others swarmed around him with knives they’d hidden inside their togas, hacking and gashing. He collapsed and died.
His calendar proved more durable. When Roman legions conquered new territories, the natives had to adopt the Roman calendar. Every day, especially at the start of the new year, it was a reminder of Roman power.
You've been hearing from Jim Whiting almost weekly, so we thought you might want to know more about him. He's an interesting fellow:
Children's book author. Acclaimed multi-genre freelance editor. Entertaining and informative classroom visitor. Middle school running coach. Award-winning magazine publisher. Workshop presenter. Sportswriter. Light versifier. E-commerce and e-book writer. Teacher. Runner. World traveler. Sailor. Scuba diver. Photographer. Actor. Patron of the arts. Hometown Hero. And of course Voracious Reader.
For more about Jim, read his biography and background.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Happy New Year--in August?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 2 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Happy-New-Year-in-August.
When Julius Caesar took control of the Roman government, he decided to reform the calendar. Because it was a lunar calendar—based on complete cycles of the moon—it had fluctuated widely for centuries. Some years had as few as 355 days while others nudged 380, often seemingly by whim. After lengthy consultations with the Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar established a calendar that is virtually the same one we use today. The lengths of the months alternated between 30 and 31 days, except February which had 29. The new calendar came into effect on January 1, 45 BCE (Before the Common Era). A grateful Roman Senate immediately changed the name of the month of Quintilis—Julius Caesar’s birth month—to July in his honor. As is the case today, it had 31 days. Caesar had only one year to enjoy “his” month, as he was assassinated the following March.
His successor was his grand-nephew Octavian, who took the name of Augustus Caesar when he officially became the first Roman emperor. In 8 BCE the Senate decided that he also deserved a month. Because several noteworthy events during Augustus’s reign had occurred in Sextilis, the month following July, they chose it. Big problem. Sextillis had only 30 days. No way would the Senate allow Augustus to be “inferior” to his great-uncle in any way. So it took a day from February and tacked it on at the end of August. That created another problem. Three consecutive months—July, August, and September—were now 31 days long. The fix was simple: the Senate simply flipped the lengths of the remaining four months. September and November went from 31 days to 30, while October and December bulked up to 31.
The Senate wasn’t finished with its tinkering. Nearly 70 years later, it honored the notorious emperor Nero by changing Aprilis to Neronius. The new name never gained traction. Nero. who had murdered his brother, mother, and wife, committed suicide in 68 CE (Common Era). The Senate—undoubtedly relieved at his demise—hastily returned Neronius to its original name.
Here is Jim's biography of Julius Caesar, who became a very successful military commander who added more than 200,000 square miles to the territories under Rome’s control. But his triumphs created powerful enemies in Rome. Eventually he was assassinated in the Roman Senate.
MLA 8 CItation
Whiting, Jim. "July, August and Neronius." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/july-august-and-neronius.
When he was a young man in his mid-twenties, future Roman leader Julius Caesar was voyaging across the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates swarmed over his ship. They took him to their base on tiny Farmakonisi Island, which lies off the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and held him for ransom.
When he learned how much the pirates were demanding for his release, Caesar laughed. Do you have any idea who I am, he asked. I belong to one of Rome’s most important families. So you can get more money for me—a lot more—almost three times as much. The astonished pirates were only too happy to oblige him.
Keeping a friend and two servants with him on Farmakonisi, Caesar ordered the rest of his traveling party to go to Asia Minor and raise his ransom. While they were doing that, Caesar acted as if he were the ruler of the tiny island, rather than a captive cowering in fright. He ordered the pirates to attend lectures and poetry readings he gave, and prodded those who nodded off as he droned on and on and on. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to either speak in whispers or go to another part of the island. He even played games with them. He also told them that when he was released, I promise I will hunt you down and execute you. In the spirit of bonhomie he engendered, the pirates apparently thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Though outwardly he was friendly with the pirates, he seethed inwardly at the humiliation of being taken prisoner. After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to a nearby port. He raised a fleet of ships and scores of armed men. He returned to Farmakonisi, captured the pirates, and reclaimed the ransom money. He threw his former captors into prison. They didn’t stay there long. Caesar crucified them. He did show some mercy. Since crucifixion was a long, lingering death, he cut their throats so they died instantly.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Man of His Word." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Mar.
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