Some things you didn’t know about New Year’s Day

If you lived in Rome about 2700 years ago, you would have celebrated the beginning of the year on Kalendae Martiae, the first day of March, which was designated as the day of the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. It was a feria, or “free day”, meaning it was a public holiday: There was a ceremonial renewal of the sacred fire of Vesta, the sacred eternal flame of Ancient Rome, and people generally laid about and did nothing. If you want to celebrate like an ancient Roman this year, you can lay around and do nothing on April 16th, and refer to the year as 2770 AUC (anno urbis conditae).

But the coolest thing about the first day of the ancient Roman calendar is that it didn’t follow immediately after the last day of the previous year. The last day of the year was usually right around the winter solstice, a little earlier than the last day of the year according to our current calendar. So what about all the time in between?

Winter is coming

According to legend, Romulus (the founder of Rome) created the first Roman calendar in a very organized way: it consisted of 38 weeks of 8 days each, grouped into 10 months of either 30 or 31 days. Extremely organized, except if you are good at math you might notice that this only adds up to 304 days.

The remaining days, between winter solstice and the first new moon after the spring equinox, belonged to no month, no week, and no year… they were just called winter.

It was a vague and unproductive time when it was too cold do anything outdoors. According to Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, it was not a time to do hard work, but was instead a good time for odd jobs and tidying.

It wasn’t until about 713 BC that (supposedly) King Numa Pompilius decided to take the “winter” clump of time and divide it into the months of January and February.  But these months were tacked on at the end of the year, and new year’s day was still celebrated on Kalendae Martiae. It wasn’t until 450 BC that a 10-person Roman committee voted to move the beginning of the year to the beginning of January, and assign some new day lengths, giving us the order and lengths of the months we know today.

Adding these months, it turns out, was a big mistake.

Assigning a specific length of time to “winter” caused a problem: because the solar (seasonal) year is not equal to a whole number of days, any calendar system that attempts to number each and every day in a year will gradually start to drift out of alignment with the seasons.

So even though everyone agreed that Kalendae Ianuariae (the first of January) was the beginning of the year, it would move around from a seasonal point of view.

The inherent flaws of republican government

To fix this problem, the Romans – ever practical – would just stick extra days in different places from time to time. Usually they would put them in the middle of February. Yes, that’s right: in the middle. The difficult part was figuring out how many days to add on any given year.

This was the period of the Roman Republic: after they had gotten rid of their king, and before it became an empire. During this period they had a Senate made up of elected representatives (much like we have in the United States), and a College of Pontiffs. The pontiffs were ostensibly religious advisers to the Senate, but as a practical matter they were seen by many to take on the religious authority that once had been centered on the king. The pontiffs even took up residence in the regal palace. The closest analog we have in United States politics today is the executive branch.

It was the pontiffs who decided how many days to add each year. As a result, the number of days added to any given year was decided late, so that many people who lived in outlying regions had no idea what the date was at any given time. The pontiffs would decide to add more days to the year when they had political allies in the Senate, and might not add any days at all when the Senate was composed mainly of political opponents. During the period of war and turmoil at the end of the Republic, they went for long periods where they just forgot to add days completely.

How did it get fixed? Julius Caesar came along, effectively took unilateral control of government, and he just … fixed it.

Things had gotten so bad that in order to get January 1st properly aligned with the “starting point” of the solar year, Caesar decreed that the year 46 BC had to be 445 days long!  He added these days in two additional months, although nobody never fully knew or understood how many days were in each.

He re-designed the lengths of the months, and added an extra day at the end of February every 4 years so that the year could stay more-or-less aligned with the seasons without any intervention by political parties, corrupt chief executives, or confused elected officials.

This is how I will celebrate New Year’s Day

So, that is the story of New Year’s Day! From that point forward, the beginning of the year has fallen on the first day of January and on the same point in the seasonal calendar each year…

…more or less.

For the first thirty-six years the pontiffs, still ostensibly in charge of the calendar during these dying days of the Roman Republic, screwed up and added a leap year every three years instead of every four. It wasn’t until the fall of the Republic and the reorganization of Rome as the Roman Empire that Augustus Caesar fixed that mistake.

And of course most of you already know the story of the recalibration that happened again in the middle ages: the tweak to the rule of leap years that produced the Gregorian calendar.

But these are just details.

I, for one, am a traditionalist.  I plan to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 16th. You should join me. We can renew the Sacred Fire of Vesta together, and try to figure out what the year actually would be if we hadn’t made the horrific strategic mistake of including “winter” as part of our calendar year in the first place.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these tags : <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Trending Articles

Keep up with my writing!You will only be notified about new articles. No ads, no petitions, no digests, no nonsense.