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Happy New Year ... The History Behind Our Calendar

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Happy New Year:

I get a bit philosophical towards the end of the year. I was interested in knowing why we celebrate the beginning of the New Year with a party instead of celebrating the New Year at Staples with a new calendar and next years stationary. I was also interested in knowing the history of why New Years begins on January 1.

So to begin this story, did you ever wake up on a cold January morning anxiously waiting for March to arrive? Well, if you lived back in the days when the Romans developed the calendar you would have gotten your wish. The Romans began their New Year in March, which was the spring equinox. Now before you get too excited about skipping January and February, those cold and sometimes snowy 60 days did exist, they just decided not to include them as months. The calendar stopped in December and did not begin again until March. You still would have paid full price for a 12-month calendar at Staples but you would have only received 10 months.

The Romans even named the first four months of the year after Gods or concepts. March was named after Mars the God of War and agriculture. April was derived from Aprilis, which is derived from Aperire, which in Latin means “to open”That may have been in reference to the opening of buds on flowers in the spring. Another theory is that April is named after Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. If this is true then that would throw our entire calendar off since Valentine's Day is in February. May’s history was derived from Maius or Maia, which is named after the Greek fertility goddess Maia. She was Mercury’s mom and had a reputation as a good mother. It is interesting that May also happens to be the day that we celebrate Mother's Day but this is just a coincidence. Maia is also known as the Goddess of Spring and Growth. June was named after Juno, which was the wife of the God Jupiter. Juno was also the goddess of marriage and childbirth. Coincidentally this is one of the most popular months for weddings.

I’m assuming they ran out of ideas for the next six months. Instead of honoring a God or a concept they basically just named them five through ten. The fifth month or what we fondly call July was originally called Quintilius, until they changed the name to July in honor of Julius Caesar and his birthday, August was originally called Sextillius for the six month until they changed our warmest month of the year to August for Augustus Caesar. In the eighth century BC, Augustus, who was Julius successor as well as his great nephew and eventually adopted son, got a month named after him after defeating Marc Antony and Cleopatra and by also becoming the emperor of Rome. September was the seventh month and comes from the old Roman word Septem.

October was the eight month, followed by November for nine and December for the 10th month.

In 713 BC they completed the calendar by adding Januarius to the 11th month or what we fondly call January and Februum or February was added as the last month. January was named after the two faced god Janus. This was the God that could look back to the past and towards the future at the same time. This will work out appropriately since we now start the year in January. So you may want to imagine that January not only looks toward to the new year but also back on the past year. Februm was derived from the word purification. This was the time for the Purification or Forgiveness Festival, when people were forgiven for their past misdeeds as preparation for spring. They only needed 28 days in February until they realized that once every four years they needed to add an extra day, which we now call Leap Year.

You are most likely wondering, “how did January go from the 11th month to the first month?" Well, whenever they had an election in Rome, the Consul, which is similar to our President, would assume office on March 15, which was the beginning of their year. However, in 153 BC, the Consul could not assume office until January 1. So instead of just being late for work by 10 months they just moved the beginning of the year to January 1. That’s some power, isn’t it? Can you imagine coming into work on Tuesday instead of Monday morning? Instead of being reprimanded for missing a day of work, the boss just changed the first day of the week to Tuesday.

So this is why January became the first month. However, New Year’s Day was still observed on March 25 well into the Middle Ages. That changed in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII tweaked the Julian calendar and created the modern Gregorian calendar.

March 25 was the Feast of the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a baby boy. This was always associated with the first month of the year. With the start of the Gregorian calendar, the New Month was moved from the Feast of the Annunciation to the Feast of the Circumcision, which took place 8 days after the baby Jesus’ birth.

So there you have it … the history of our modern calendar. In theory I guess it does’’t matter which month begins the first of the year. The important thing is that we make the most of every day.

Happy New Year! Joel

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