A Brief History of New Years: Why We Celebrate on January 1st

As with many things in antiquity, the history of New Years and how we decided on a calendar date is mired in conflicting facts and lore. Even today, January 1st is not recognized as the beginning of a twelve-month cycle in various parts of the world. The process of placing January 1st as the new year in many regions, Europe and North American included, can trace its history back to 45 BCE when Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire.

ancient calendar of New Year's history

Ancient Roman stone calendar, Fasti Praenestini, circa AD 6. Source: Flickr, Jimnista, National Museum Rome.

Calendars of Ancient Rome

Lunar Calendar

Most calendars we are familiar with today are based on the time it takes the earth to make one revolution around the sun. However, the calendar being used by Rome from the 7th century B.C.E. onwards relied on the calculation of the lunar cycles. This caused massive confusion, as the moon makes a complete orbit around the earth in only 27 days, 7 hours, and 43 minutes. This meant that solstices and equinoxes would shift calendar dates each year. This confusion affected many things, such as the planting and harvesting of crops. Additionally, it had a significant impact on the length of time that government officials, known as “consuls,” held their one-year positions.

Julian Calendar

Eventually, in 45 B.C.E., Julius Caesar sought advice from an astronomer who showed the emperor that a solar-based calendar would sort out the majority of the puzzlement society faced each year. Caesar soon instituted the astronomer’s plan and developed a 12-month calendar. To make his mark on the new Julian calendar, he renamed the month of July after himself, and the next month would take the name of his successor, Caesar Augustus. January 1st became the start of the new year primarily because that was the date Roman politicians began their official duties.

new years history

Julian calendar on stone from the time of Augustus to Tiberius with 8 day weeks. Source: WIT

While the Julian calendar was better than the previous one, it is not the calendar we know today. A slight miscalculation of the solar year caused a gap of about 10 minutes per year. Those minutes added up and by circa 1450 C.E. there were an additional ten days floating around that nobody knew what to do with.

Gregorian Calendar

The problem again went back to Rome for a solution, this time to Pope Gregory XIII. He also consulted an astronomer who mathematically worked on the exact time of a solar year. Hence, in 1582 the Gregorian calendar made its debut. It corrected the 10-minute error and instituted an additional day, February 29th, to be added every four years. Now, according to the Catholic Church, January 1st marked the beginning of the new year.

This did not go over well with Protestants. They loudly proclaimed that Gregory was the Antichrist that the New Testament mentions, as he had changed time itself.

Surprisingly, many “civilized” countries did not change to the January date until relatively recently. Most of the British territories did not make the change until 1752, and Russia waited until after their 1917 revolution.

Changing Dates of New Years

Many different celestial factors and calendars affected New Year’s history around the world. Most people are aware of the movable dates of the Chinese New Year and the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah). But across the globe the start of a new year varies in different cultures. Ethiopia starts its year on September 11; some parts of India celebrate the festival on dates based on the Hindu calendar; and the tiny area of Gwaun Valley in Wales uses the archaic Julian calendar and celebrates January 13 as the start of a new year.

Ultimately, January 1st stands as the start of the year in most places due to political elections in Rome that took place thousands of years ago. But science has noted that factors such as the time it takes the earth to circle the sun and the distance to the sun is unstable. Perhaps this will necessitate another change in the calendar that will move the start of the year to a different date. Time will tell.

45 B.C. New Year’s Day”, History, pulled 12/9/16.
New Year’s Day”, Wikipedia, pulled 12/9/16.
“Why Does the New Year Start on January 1?”, Mental Floss, pulled 12/9/16.
The Roman Calendar, pulled 12/29/16.

Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

  • Hardy Stegall

    Interesting article Mr. Macgowan, but I think that you failed to find the oldest and best reason to start the new year on January 1 st. I have not seen this in print anywhere, so I may be the first curious mind to come upon this in some time…I was looking in my Burnhams Celestial Handbook and came across the fact that Sirius, aka Canis major A is the brightest fixed object in the sky and reaches its zenith or midnight ascension on the night of Dec 31st each year. this means that it is directly opposite the sun at that moment. Since it would be possible for the ancients to have determined that and it was the brightest fixed object in the heavens, It seems obvious to me that they would choose that as the beginning of their new year.