It may appear obvious to many in modern times that January 1 represents the transition from one year to another. But how about January 14, February 5, April 13, August 30, September 29, and March 7? These seemingly random dates may appear to have nothing in common, but in fact each one marks the beginning of a new year somewhere around the world.
Power and political machinations through the ages have influenced the calendar and the day we choose to celebrate the arrival of a new year. So, why do Americans choose to mark New Year’s Day on January 1?
Today, many countries, including the U.S., use the Gregorian calendar. It should be no surprise that the Gregorian calendar marks the beginning of our age at the birth of Jesus Christ, since it was developed by the Catholic Church, having been commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 1500s. It was designed to replace the Julian calendar, which had been instituted by Roman emperor Julius Caesar on New Year’s Day of January 1, in the year 45 B.C.
During the Middle Ages, the date of the New Year varied according to region and religious practice. In some areas, it was celebrated on March 25, Lady Day, which memorializes the Virgin Mary and the Feast of the Annunciation. Elsewhere in Europe, the New Year was on December 25 as a joint holiday with Christmas. Easter was another common New Year date.
Caesar’s calendar included a minor error. The Gregorian calendar corrected the issue in 1582, and January 1 was reinstated as the beginning of the New Year, chosen to coincide with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.
The Gregorian calendar was quickly adopted by Catholic countries across Europe but strongly resisted in Protestant countries, where people were highly suspicious that it was a thinly veiled takeover plot by the Catholic Church. Britain didn’t agree to implement the Gregorian calendar until 200 years later, in 1750. The Calendar (New Style) Act introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, and by that time the Julian calendar had drifted by 11 days, so it was announced that Wednesday, Sept. 2, would be followed directly by Thursday, Sept. 14, 1752.
There apparently was public concern over the moving of religious holidays to fit the papal schedule, as well as whether people would be charged extra rents and taxes to cover the 11 “lost days.” Word went around that people had protested in what became known as the “English calendar riots.” These rumors appear to have been greatly exaggerated, with the website Historic U.K. saying, “Most historians now believe that these protests never happened. You could say that the calendar rioters were the late Georgian equivalent of an urban myth.”
Political intrigue, culture, and spiritual beliefs have as much influence as the natural cycle of the Earth on the marking of time. The French revolutionaries invented their own calendar in the 1700s to mark the beginning of the Republican Age, although it was abandoned with the formation of a new empire shortly thereafter. Russia finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918, following the Soviet Revolution. Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar – which is now 13 days removed from the Gregorian calendar – while varied societies across the world continue to observe their own systems, if only for the sake of tradition.
So, here’s wishing a Happy New Year to all – but keep in mind that a new stage in life can begin at any time you choose, not just on January 1.