Happy New (?) Year

Well, here we are at the end of another year. But why is it the end of the year? The winter solstice, the meteorological beginning of winter, occurred only yesterday. For most people the “school year” started in late August or early September. The fiscal year started in July. What makes this the end of one year and the beginning of another?

A “year,” of course, is just the time it takes the earth to make a complete orbit around the sun—365 days and a bit of change. There is no real “beginning” or “end,” just a continuous repetition. When we mark one spot as the beginning of the year, it is an arbitrary decision. What’s interesting is to see how many different decisions have been made and the reasons for those decisions.

In ancient Egypt the year began when the Nile River flooded, a phenomenon caused by rain and melting snow in the mountains in central Africa. This happened in the spring, but never at precisely the same time. In ancient Athens the year began around the time of the summer solstice. In Rome the year originally began in March, probably connected to the spring equinox. But, in 153 BC, the Romans moved the beginning of their year to January, for reasons we don’t know. We still live with the legacy of that change. The names of the months September, October, November, and December mean 7, 8, 9, and 10, although they are now the ninth through the twelfth months of our year.

Julius Caesar, ca. 45 BC, established a year with months of 30 and 31 days, renamed the month of Quintilis in his own honor, and added an extra day to February every fourth year. His grand-nephew Augustus, not to be outdone, renamed the month of Sextilis in his honor. (Other emperors tried naming months after themselves, but, thankfully, the new names never stuck past the emperor’s death.)

The establishment of the Julian calendar didn’t settle the matter for Europe, though. Pagan celebrations associated with the New Year were so raucous and “unchristian” that in 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. For the next thousand years the start of the year was celebrated on Dec. 25 or March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation) or at Easter.

In 1582 the Gregorian calendar restored January 1 as New Year’s Day and adjusted the “slippage” which had occurred over the centuries because of incorrect calculation of the exact length of the year. Protestant countries were slow to adopt a calendar established by a pope. The British Empire held out until 1752. Until that time the American colonies celebrated the New Year in March, which may be part of the reason why a newly elected President originally took office in that month. The last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar was Greece, in 1923, while the last country in the world to adopt it was the Soviet Union, in 1929. The Berber people of North Africa still use the Julian calendar.

In some cultures a lunar calendar is used. Twelve lunar months equal 356 days, so in a lunar calendar there is a bit of slippage each year against the solar calendar. It’s necessary to insert intercalary days or months periodically or your harvest festival will soon be taking place in the spring. Some cultures just accept the slippage. For Muslims, for example, this means that Ramadan, the month of fasting, occurs earlier each year. In 2014 it ran from June 29 to July 27. In 2015 it will run from June 18 to July 16. By 2020 the start date will have moved back to April 24.

Some Islamic countries determine the beginning of the year by local sightings of the moon on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. Other countries rely on astronomical calculations. This means that the beginning of the year may vary by a day or two from one country to another. The Islamic year 1436 AH (After the Hijra, Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD) began on October 24/25, 2014 by the Gregorian calendar. 1437 AH will begin on October 13/14/15, 2015, depending on how the first day of Muharram is calculated in a particular location.

Judaism, which also uses a lunar calendar with intercalary corrections, celebrates the New Year in the fall. Rosh Hashanah (“the head of the year”) occurs 163 days after the first day of Passover, which occurs within a limited range of days in March/April. Rosh Hashanah began at sunset on Sept. 24 this year. In 2015 it will begin at sunset on Sept. 13.

Coptic Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia still follow the ancient Egyptian civil calendar. Their New Year begins on September 29 and Christmas falls on January 7, as it does in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Are you confused yet? But wait! There’s more.

The Chinese New Year begins on the 23rd day of the 12th month in the Chinese lunar calendar. It is essentially a recognition of the arrival of spring. Celebrations continue until the 15th day of the first month of the next year. In terms of the Gregorian calendar the starting date always falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20. In 2015 it will be on Feb. 19. Koreans observe the same day, but their celebrations cover only the day before, the day of, and the day after New Year’s.

Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, is celebrated according to the Chinese calendar, but, because of differences in time zones, the new moon can rise an hour later than in Chinese calculations and thus potentially on a different day.

So, Happy New Year! Whenever it is and whatever it means.

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