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The weird and confusing history behind the new year calendar


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Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in Jan. 2018.

The gifts have been exchanged, the treats are all gone, some may be a little fuller in the midsection, and the excitement of the holidays has worn off. There is always a bit of a letdown associated with the end of the holiday season. When you finish reading this article, you may feel confusion as well.

I thought it would be fun to look into the history of New Year’s Day. What I know now that I did not know before is that somebody really goofed when they assigned this day to the calendar.

It all begins with a guy named Janus, the Roman God of doors and gates (Why they needed a God for that is beyond me). Janus had two faces: one facing forward and one facing backward. Julius Caesar, who was the ruler at the time, felt that the start of a new year was a “door” to the future. So naturally, he named a new month “January” after Janus. That is when January 1 was officially declared as “New Year’s Day.”

So far so good, right? Well, here’s where it gets a little weird.

To celebrate this occasion, Caesar ordered a violent execution of Jewish forces. New Year’s day celebrations continued through the years with what evolved into heavily sexualized parties. The Pagans believed these “parties” were symbolic of “the chaotic world that existed before the creation of the cosmos.” (Don’t ask me, I’m only the messenger).

This continued for about 500 years until someone had the idea that celebrations of this sort were morally off base. So they were dropped. The date of the New Year was eventually changed. Whether this was an effort to disassociate this day with previous “celebrations” or just start something new is anyone’s guess.

For a while, December 25th was the new “New Year.” Then it was March 1 and later March 25 in conjunction with the Vernal Equinox or what we now know as Easter. Around 1725 or so it was changed back to January 1.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, the length of the calendar year also went through some changes during this time. In the days before Caesar, it was a ten-month calendar year but in 46 B.C. that all changed.

“We still have a vestige of the old March-start calendars hidden with us in plain sight,” states an article from Time.

The months of September through December are currently months nine through twelve — even though the root word of September is “Septem” which is latin for “seven,” not nine. “Octo” means eight, and so on.

The occasion is further complicated when you add the tradition of making new year’s resolutions. But I’m afraid this point will have to be a discussion for another time.

For now, we’ll wrap this up by saying “Happy New Year.”