Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year

So why is today, January 1, 2012, the beginning of a new year?  What special events happened on this date long ago to make it memorable and the beginning of a year?  Why doesn’t the year begin with the lengthening of days on the Winter Solstice?  Or perhaps on the Vernal Equinox when the season of Spring starts?  And who set up the calendar we use anyway?

That’s a lot of questions to ask after a night of reveling, except I fell asleep and dreamed about a New Year, a New Beginning.

This morning, instead of complaining about a headache which I didn’t have, I did what good librarians have done for centuries – research.  And here’s what I found out.

Not everyone celebrates New Year on January 1.  I already knew about the Chinese New Year, known as the Spring Festival, which follows the Lunar Calendar instead of the Solar Calendar and lasts fifteen days.  The Chinese or Lunar New Year falls on January 23 this year.  But what about other cultures?  Here’s some more in order of their occurrence during the year 2012: Buddhists celebrate start of the New Year on the date when Buddha Mahaparinibbana died; so this year is will be April 6.  The Buddhist year is 2555.  Next is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year a time of introspection and change, which will be from sundown on September 16 through 18.  The Jewish year is 5772.  And the quiet Islamic New Year is a remembrance of Muhammed’s emigration from Mecca to Medina and will occur on November 26.  The Islamic year is 1433.  (

I found a really good article about the Julian and Gregorian calendars by Peter Meyer which explains how the Romans used a solar year calendar and Julius Caesar needed to change from the old calendar which was in use at the time of his reign.  But then by the year 1582, the Julian calendar no longer matched with the times the seasons naturally began, thus Easter was slipping into summer on the calendar.  Oooops.  Two Popes, Paul III and Gregory XIII, were instrumental in changing the calendar which now bears Gregory’s name since he had more to do with it than Paul did.  Jesuit Christopher Clavius and astronomer and physician, Luigi Lilio, were the actual authors of the calendar, but of course, in those days it took a papal bull to institute a change so large as eliminating ten whole days from the calendar and getting the world to agree.  European countries were, of course, the first to adopt the Gregorian Calendar, but it took a good 341 years to get consent from some quarters.  The Gregorian Calendar is now considered to be the international civil calendar – the one everyone uses to count the years as they fly by.  Well, actually so we all understand when matters we all discuss happened.  Acceptance by the International Community took quite a number of years, no matter whose years you count.

So back to January 1 and the beginning of a New Year.  Why January 1?  The Romans, it seems began their year in March with Spring, but when Julius Caesar changed the calendar that date fell on January 1.   To top that off the Roman senate convened on January 1.  Caesar, however, wanted the New Year to begin at the Winter Solstice – new light, new beginning.  Seeing the political light Caesar capitulated and gave up on the Winter Solstice as being the beginning of the New Year.  

According to Christian tradition Jesus was circumcised on January 1.  Circumcision was an auspicious day in the life of any Jewish male child.  So when the Popes got involved in calendar reform, New Year’s Day was kept as January 1.  Since the world as a whole adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the world celebrates the New Year on January 1.

Whatever the tradition you follow, a new year is a new beginning, a time to reflect on the year just past and adjust for the clean slate year ahead. 

Just an afterthought: We could all celebrate our very own New Year when it’s our birthday. 

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