MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Is January 1 The Start Of The New Year?

It may be just a date on the calendar to a lot of folks, but have you ever stopped to wonder: why is January 1 when we mark the beginning of a new year?

As with most things, it all goes back to the Romans. The Romans had a deity named Janus, god of doors & gates, and he had 2 faces: one looking forward, one looking back. Julius Caesar thought that January, which was named for Janus, should be the “doorway” to a new year. So, when Caesar created the Julian calendar, January 1 became the first day of the year.

Once Rome had fallen & Christianity began to spread across Europe, celebrating the new year was considered a pagan thing to do. So, the first day of the year got moved to more Christian-friendly dates. Yes, “dates”. Because some countries started their year on March 25, the date commemorating when Mary found out she was pregnant with Jesus, while others used Christmas Day (Dec. 25), and still others used Easter Sunday. Well, by the Middle Ages, the Julian year had become so misaligned with the solar year (thanks to an error in the Julian calendar), that the difference had grown to a whopping 10 days by 1582. That snafu meant that the Spring Equinox (and Easter) had to keep getting moved up. So, Pope Gregory XIII, who’d had enough of constantly resetting the holiday, came up with a new calendar that featured one “leap” day every four years, as a mechanism to keep things in line. And, in the process, he returned January 1 to its place as the first day of the year.

Most Catholic countries were quick to adopt the Gregorian calendar, but others…not so much. Protestants thought they were being tricked into worshiping on incorrect days. Eastern Rite churches were more focused on maintaining their traditions, so they kept the Julian calendar for several centuries more. Russia didn’t make the change to the Gregorian calendar until after the 1917 revolution. And even today, the Eastern Orthodox Church still follows the traditional and/or revised Julian calendar to set its liturgical year.

But eventually, the Protestant nations did make the switch to the Gregorian calendar. And here we are, well over 400 years later, and things still seem to be in order. (I guess you could say Pope Gregory XIII didn’t “drop the ball”!)

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