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 the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BCE after his brother was assassinated, he insisted on being called Antiochus Epiphanes (“Antiochus the Visible God”). To the Jews who had the misfortune to be among his subjects, he was Antiochus Epimanes (“Antiochus the lunatic”).
No matter his name, he was definitely bad news to the Jews. Because of his Greek background, Antiochus believed in many gods. The Jews, on the other hand, were monotheistic. Antiochus soon began imposing his beliefs on the Jews and making it much more difficult for them to practice their religion. For example, anyone caught circumcising their newborn children would be put to death.
In 168 he sacked Jerusalem. His forces cut down thousands of defenseless Jews of all ages, looted and desecrated the Second Temple, and erected a massive statue of the chief Greek god Zeus (using himself as a model for the sculptor who created the statue). Soon the altar ran red with the blood of swine that were slaughtered as sacrifices. For good measure, Antiochus also outlawed the Hebrew religion.
The outraged Jews fought back. An elderly priest named Mattathias and some of his men killed a group of Seleucid soldiers. That ignited a revolt against Antiochus’s rule. When Mattathias died, his son Judah assumed the leadership role. Judah soon acquired the surname of Maccabee (“the hammer”) for his skill in battle. After a series of successful guerrilla operations, he led his vastly outnumbered forces to two decisive victories that resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem in 165.
The first order of business was cleansing the temple so it could be rededicated. The ceremony began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. According to legend, the small amount of purified oil that was readily available for the rites was expected to burn just a single night. Instead it burned for eight nights, when a new supply became available. That miracle gave rise to the ceremony of lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which means “dedication.”
Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar-based, the dates of Hanukkah change each year. This year Hanukkah begins [December 12] at sunset and lasts until sunset on December .
To the Jewish families who celebrate the holiday, Happy Hanukkah!
The holidays are approaching and millions of people will be listening to Handel’s Messiah. Read all about the composer in Jim Whiting’s Masters of Music biography.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Story of Hanukkah." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-story-of-hanukkah.
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.