History Of New Year's: Why Is It January 1?

By Grace Taylor

A view of fireworks by the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball during 2021 New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square on December 31, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

What makes January 1 a new year? There's nothing special about the first of January in any cosmic sense, and it doesn't fall on a solstice, so why this arbitrary date? Well, it hasn't always been this way. In fact, some of the earliest recordings of the concept of a new year can be traced back to the Babylonians, who celebrated the beginning of the Earth's journey around the Sun with a harvest festival known as Akitu, which lasted for 11 days, at the vernal equinox (usually March or April).

Statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums. (Loudon Dodd/Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Romans also initially celebrated the beginning of the year in March, but around 700 B.C.E., King Numa Pompilius added another two months to the year, Januarius and Februarius. They were supposed to be tacked onto the end, but then Caesar came along and made January the beginning because that's when the Romans inaugurated their new consoles and the month's namesake, Janus, was the god of beginnings and transitions whose two faces looked into the past and future. It made sense on a symbolic level, but that's also why the months of September through December, which literally translate to the seventh through tenth months, are named after the wrong numbers. You can't have everything. Other than the rescheduling, however, New Year's celebrations remained largely the same. Many traditions of the previous Saturnalia festival, the older Roman New Year celebration, still carried over, like the frisky New Year's kiss.

Shoppers at a New Year market in Chinatown, Singapore. (Calvin Teo/Wikimedia Commons)

During the 1500s, many Catholic and European countries made the switch, though many Europeans continued to think of the spring as the beginning of the year. The English celebrated March 15 as the new year all the way until 1752, while the French tried to implement their own calendar during the Revolution but gave up in 1805 after 12 years of confusion and annoyance over a 10-day week and a chaotic approach to leap years. Many Europeans liked January as the first month due to its proximity to Christmas, which at least vaguely linked the birth of Jesus to the beginning of the year. Some cultures still celebrate the new year according to their own calendars or maintain traditions in addition to the revelry of January 1, most famously China's Lunar New Year, which is celebrated by more than a billion people across the globe.

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Grace Taylor