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When Does a New Year Start?
Quirky, fun facts as we chased the New Year through history
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is a collaboration with co-author Joshua Deiches, a fellow aspiring Polymath, and looks at our tradition of celebrating the New Year on January 1st in the Western World. What we uncover is a fantastic look at history as we chase the shifting of when the New Year actually occurred, why 11 days were removed in 1752, and the traditions that surround this holiday.
Does the year start in the fall, winter, or spring? The first thing you might note is that we don’t ask whether the year starts in summer. That’s because almost all traditions celebrate a new year clustered around the Vernal (Spring) and Autumnal (Fall) equinoxes or the Winter solstice. The second thing you might notice is that half of the planet south of the equator actually would celebrate the New Year at their summer solstice, but not intentionally.
These two things are due to a series of interesting situations. For one, the southern hemisphere has only 33% of the Earth’s land. Another is that humans evolved and emerged in Northern Africa, probably Ethiopia, and the first significant civilizations were in the Middle East which is 33° north of the equator. As such, 90% of Earth's population now lives in the Northern Hemisphere, and the majority of our date keeping is naturally bound by that seasonal perspective. This leaves us with three major Northern Hemispheric clusters of new years traditions: Spring, Fall, and Winter.
Since we are steeped in Judeo-Christian tradition, let’s start there with the New Year ordained by God in the Bible:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.”
In this passage, Nisan, a preexisting Babylonian-named month, is established as first because it is the month in which the Israelites are rescued from the Pharaoh in the Exodus story.1 From it, all other months and festivals are counted in the Jewish calendar. Nisan very nearly coincides with the Spring Equinox, i.e. the first day of spring, for most years. This date makes sense for a new year because it aligns with the emergence of green life from the dormant flora, the birthing cycles of animals, and the planting of new crops for cultivation.
Surprisingly, however, the current New Year's Day, also known as Rosh Hashanah, is the start of the civil new year and the point at which the year number increments. It falls at the start of the seventh month (as counted from Nisan) of the Jewish religious calendar in a month called Tishrei. This day marks the end of one agricultural year and the start of a new one and typically falls in September or October. This of course aligns fairly well with the fall equinox and the celebrations of the harvests with the new year. It also opens up another whole can of worms when it comes to calendars in general!
There have been calendars across all cultural groups for as long as we’ve kept time. There’s been the Mayan Calendar that some suggested foretold the end of the world (it didn’t happen) and religious calendars such as Buddhist, Islamic, and the aforementioned Jewish ones. Yet there is one that we rely on today that has a lot of interesting quirks of its own. The early Roman calendar of 800 BC consisted of 10 months and 304 days (six 30-day months and four 31-day months), with each new year beginning on the spring equinox, a convention attributed to Romulus, namesake of Rome. In fact, one need not look far to discover an ancient relic lurking in our modern calendar: the names of the last few months, namely September, October, November, and December, read just like Seven-ber, Eight-ber, Nine-ber and Ten-ber to a good student of Latin. Working that mathematical pattern backward with December as ten, and November as nine, we arrive at March as one, and the start of the New Year.
However, with only 304 days this quickly fell out of alignment with earth’s orbit of the sun. Later, King Numa Pompilius is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius in an attempt to curtail the looming misalignment. The problem of March drifting earlier into winter meant that it would eventually no longer correspond to spring. Later, in an effort to fix months to their orbital and hence seasonal significance, Julius Caesar consulted with the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians and identified the need to extend the year to 365 days plus a leap year every 4 years. When he introduced the new Julian calendar, 90 extra days were needed in the year 46 BC to realign to the solar cycle (although Julius wouldn’t have considered the year to be 46 BC—but that’s a rabbit hole for another day along with his naming July after himself). Caesar also instituted January 1st as the New Year, honoring Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, and thus was born our current New Year's Day.
When Christianity emerged in the early AD era, this pagan alignment didn’t sit well and so for centuries, Christians maintained traditions to celebrate the New Year around dates like December 25th and March 25th, Jesus’s Birthday and the Feast of the Annunciation, respectively. This even affected the Roman Empire when Constantine converted in 312 AD and New Year’s Day shifted into March. In general, there just wasn’t a common consensus and so many cultures continued to celebrate the New Year independently primarily clustered around Winter and Spring.
Implementing a new, New Year
It wasn’t until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1st as New Year’s Day with his release of the Gregorian Calendar. This solved the slow drift of the Julian calendar because, while 365.25 days of a solar orbit is close, it is actually 365.2422 days. Although this seems like an insignificant rounding error, by 1582, the calendar required eliminating 10 days on the year of adoption and adding some exceptions to the “every 4th year is a leap year,” rule:
Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the year 2000 is.
This causes some very interesting consequences as the Gregorian calendar wasn’t widely accepted by all nations immediately. The Protestants feared the Catholic-designed calendar was a power grab and so countries like Great Britain didn’t adopt it until 1752. This decision to change still wasn’t accepted by everyone, leading to riots in England among other disagreements. Ramifications of this delay also lead to the fun fact that many of America’s founding generation have two birthdays!
George Washington is a great example because his birthday is listed as both February 11th, 1731 and February 22nd, 1732. This is because, while in 1582 the calendar was off by 10 days, by 1752 it was off by eleven days which had to be removed. This meant that September 2nd, 1752, was followed by September 14th, 1752, and Washington’s birthday shifted from the 11th to the 22nd.
But his birthday also moved an entire year! This is due to a second ramification in that the implementation of the Gregorian Calendar also shifted New Year’s Day to January 1st. Up until this time, England celebrated their new year on March 25th known as Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation. Since February would have previously been the second to last month, not the second month, once corrected this caused Washington to have two birth years.
Another fascinating aspect is that these changes of adding and removing days also caused shifts in where the days of the week fall. For instance, Sunday hasn’t always been intervals of 7 all the way back in history. As the September 1752 calendar demonstrates below, the 14th would have originally fallen on a Monday, but eliminating 11 days now has it falling on a Thursday. This impacts those who are intent on keeping a seventh-day Sabbath like the Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc. because fundamentally, we really don’t know when the seventh day really is!
What about the moon?
While the Gregorian calendar solved calendar drift with its innovative method to adjust for the fractional days aligned to the solar progression, this correction did come with a tradeoff: the calendar now had no apparent connection to the timekeeping object from which the structure of months even came from—the Moon! That is, there is no obvious way to keep track of what month it is or how far into a particular month one has progressed by looking at the phases of the Moon. Other calendars have favored this more practical calendar-keeping method.
For example, Lunar New Year is celebrated across China, Indochina, and the Korean peninsula around February based on a lunar calendar that also happens to align with their spring harvest. Every few years, corrective measures of intercalation are taken to insert a special “leap month” that keeps the cosmos-respecting lunar calendar from drifting too far from the solar. Calendars with a lunar basis and solar correction are called lunisolar.
There are calendars, however, that do not bow to the solar requirement nor are they affixed to any solstice or equinox. Take, for instance, the steady progression of the Islamic New Year, Muharram, backward through the months over the years where in 2010 it occurred on December 6th, and in 2030 it will occur on May 3rd. This is due to the Hijri calendar being aligned to the phases of the moon where 29.53 days of the moon’s synodic month come up almost 11 days short after 12 cycles. So instead of 365.24 days, a purely lunar calendar has 354.38 days, a shortfall of 10.88 days.
Other New Years
Now that we’ve established the history of January 1st as the start of the new year as well as how that day has actually shifted and been corrected in the past, what other cultures celebrate a New Year that isn’t on January 1?
The first cluster is in the spring where the Balinese New Year is in early March, the Iranian New Year of Zoroastrian and Baha’i followers at the equinox, and the Telegu and Kannada peoples on the Indian subcontinent celebrating in early April. The Sinhalese and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka is also associated with the equinox but the delay until mid-April allows this celebration to coincide with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka.
There are fewer New Year celebrations in the fall where, along with the Jews, Ethiopians celebrate Enkutatash in mid-September and the Marwari and Gujarati people of India celebrate Diwali at the end of October. The Aboriginal Murador of Western Australia, also celebrate in October however, this ironically is no longer a fall New Year because, in the southern hemisphere, it would instead be spring.
What’s in a Celebration?
This essay has addressed a lot of fascinating history about New Year’s Day, but what is the entire point of marking this day? The first, and most obvious is the ability to measure the seasons based on our measurement of the orbit. Picking a time at a solstice or equinox becomes a readily identifiable and repeatable point of measurement. The winter solstice would be the easiest to measure because civilization historically slowed down in the winter between the harvest and the planting and so there was more time for observation and celebration. The spring equinox would also be important, signifying the end of winter, the rebirth of nature, and signaling the planting season.
Humans have taken the opportunity to add much more to this concept. More mainstream celebrations leverage the New Year to provide a firm marker to initiate life changes in the form of New Year’s resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are held to be some of the first to make resolutions over 4,000 years ago. This occurred in March, at the spring equinox, during the massive 12-day religious festival known as Akitu. Here they made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return borrowed items. A similar practice existed in Rome where resolutions were made to the aforementioned god Janus.
This tradition remains in many cultures, regardless of which day the New Year is celebrated. The idea of rebirth and renewal, as well as our ability to shape a new future, strikes a chord with our psyche and infuses an enhanced significance into the marking of our annual orbit and the progression of the seasons.
As we consider this celebration and the human drive to guide our future to better things,, writing recently wrote on how goal setting is pointless - you need to build good habits. This is a crucial concept that ties into much of the psychology we’ve talked about before and how making the best change isn’t about a thing, it’s about being. It’s the habits that you break or build break that allow you to achieve amazing outcomes.
Just like we explored in Who is Santa Claus, our varied celebrations of the New Year are full of meaning, symbolism, and significance. The history is a fantastic exploration into the measurement of a timeless cycle2 and the preponderance of commemorations celebrating the birth of new light and life at the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox.
In line with the celebration of rebirth, betterment, and setting good habits, We (Josh and Michael) have crafted a resolution that embraces a concept coined by technology futurist Alvin Toffler:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”
Therefore, we resolve to constantly aspire to Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn. This will also become the core of Polymathic Being as we explore new, unique, and counterintuitive topics in a playful, curious, and hopefully insightful manner. You are cordially invited to join us as we continue sharing what we find in these essays so we can learn and grow together.
Happy New Year: may your course and efforts over the next year bring you blessings and learning, and may you continue to grow into a better person, adding positive energy to the world around you.
Joshua Deiches is an applied mathematician with an M.S. in mathematics from the University of Alabama providing quantified analysis to complex problems within autonomy, AI, and human-machine trust. He was a high school teacher for twelve years and actively tutors in all levels of mathematics for high school and university students. He is also an aspiring polymath with a very wide diversity of skills. We met as co-workers and he introduced Michael to Gin, Freediving, and the Ukelele while Michael introduced him to beer brewing, biomechanics of physical fitness, and the fun of fasting. We look forward to more collaboration and insights in the future.
Another interesting tidbit is that the Jewish month Nisan was named during their captivity in Babylon starting in 597 BC and not their exodus from Egypt which is said to have occurred in 1476 BC. We couldn’t track down what the month’s name was prior to the captivity in time for this essay.
We say timeless tongue-in-cheek in a variety of ways. Something for another topic, that makes the date actually flexible is a little-known phenomenon called the Precession of the Equinoxes. Simply put, over about 25,700 years, the earth wobbles a complete circle meaning that every 13,000 years the seasons, in the orbit, are opposite. So in 13,000 years, our summer will be winter, and winter will be summer and New Year’s Day will have moved again.