Tuesday, 01 January 2019 22:25

The what, when and how of the beginning of a new year

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The what, when and how of the beginning of a new year William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

Most of the Western world now recognizes Jan. 1 as “New Year’s Day,” but, just as is true with the majority of our American holidays and customs, the history of how we came to acknowledge and commemorate this particular date as the commencement of a new year is a bit less than straightforward.


Jan. 1 has indeed been considered the beginning of the “new” year for quite awhile. The first time in recorded history that such was the case was 45 B.C.; it was at that time that the Julian (as in Julius Caesar) Calendar took effect.  

Caesar was responsible for the changing of how months were denoted, measured and recorded throughout the Roman Empire early in his period of rule. Recognizing the traditional Roman calendar to be relatively inaccurate and, after seven centuries of usage, out of sync with the seasons, Caesar commissioned Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to develop a better way of timekeeping on the monthly level.  

Sosigenes advised Caesar to adopt an approach similar to what the Egyptians were already doing. That method was based on the solar cycle rather than that of the moon and based upon period of 365.25 days. Consequently, Caesar added 67 days to 45 B.C. and decreed Jan. 1 (as opposed to traditional recognition of March 1) to be the beginning of the subsequent year (i.e., what came to be known as 44 B.C.).

Leap year was established at the same time. Recognizing the necessity of adjusting for the fractional minutes entailed in the six hours otherwise unaccounted for annually, Caesar ordered that, every fourth year, the month of February would henceforth be comprised of 29 days.

The Caesar family egos also precipitated a renaming of two of the existent months. The month of Quintilis (the fifth month in the traditional calendar) was renamed “Julius” and, after the elder Caesar was assassinated, his son Augustus also decided to rename the sixth month (Sextilis) after himself, thus creating the month of “Augustus.” 

All was well and good for centuries until yet another calculation error was noticed. The actual time for a complete orbit around the sun for Earth is not exactly 365.25 days. Rather, it takes 365.242199 days for a full solar year to elapse. This resulted in a difference of 11 minutes each year. While such a minuscule discrepancy may seem insignificant, when multiplied over a few hundred years of compounding the error, the shift of synchronicity between days, months, and seasons again manifested itself —  seven days had been added by the year 1000 A.D., and 10 days by the mid-1400s.

But this time it was the Roman Church that pushed for an adjustment. Pope Gregory XIII sought the advice of Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to essentially correct the calendar that Caesar and Sosigenes had developed. The Gregorian calendar was subsequently implemented in October of 1582, omitting 11 days and officially re-establishing the sanctity of Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day.