It seems completely natural that January 1 marks a new beginning. We celebrate the end of the previous cycle with parties and fireworks, while often planning a whole range of life changes we will suddenly be able to make at the beginning of the incoming year. It may appear obvious to many in the modern West that January 1 represents the transition from one year to another. But how about January 14, February 5, April 13, August 30, September 29, and March 7? These seemingly random dates may appear to have nothing in common, but in fact each one marks the beginning of a new year somewhere around the world.
“…the 11 “lost days.”
As it turns out, even time itself and the movements of the Earth around the sun – or at least the human interpretation of these phenomena – aren’t immune from politics. Power and political machinations through the ages have influenced the calendar and the day we choose to celebrate the arrival of a new year. So, why do Americans choose to mark New Year’s Day on January 1?
Through the ages and across cultures, calendars have interpreted the Earth and stars differently, according to the astronomical information available at the time. Today, Western civilization uses the solar Gregorian calendar, which has become the most widely used timekeeping system across the world and now represents the international standard.
It should be no surprise that the Gregorian calendar marks the beginning of our age at the birth of Jesus Christ, since it was developed by the Catholic Church, having been commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 1500s. It was designed to replace the Julian calendar, which had been instituted by Roman emperor Julius Caesar on New Year’s Day of Jan. 1, in the year 45 B.C.
During the Middle Ages, the date of the New Year varied according to region and religious practice. In some areas, it was celebrated on March 25, Lady Day, which memorializes the Virgin Mary and the Feast of the Annunciation; elsewhere in Europe the New Year was on Dec. 25 as a joint holiday with Christmas; Easter was another common New Year date.
The New Gregorian Calendar
Caesar’s calendar included a minor error, but nevertheless one that gradually drifted away from the natural seasons. The Gregorian calendar corrected the issue in 1582, and Jan. 1 was reinstated as the beginning of the New Year, chosen to coincide with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.
The Gregorian calendar was quickly adopted by Catholic countries across Europe but strongly resisted in Protestant countries, where people were highly suspicious that it was a thinly veiled takeover plot by the Catholic Church. Britain didn’t agree to implement the Gregorian calendar until 200 years later, in 1750. The Calendar (New Style) Act introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, and by that time the Julian calendar had drifted by 11 days, so it was announced that Wednesday, Sept. 2, would be followed directly by Thursday, Sept. 14, 1752.
There apparently was public concern over the moving of religious holidays to fit the papal schedule, as well as whether people would be charged extra rents and taxes to cover the 11 “lost days.” Word went around that people had protested in what became known as the “English calendar riots”; these rumors appear to have been greatly exaggerated, with the website Historic UK saying, “Most historians now believe that these protests never happened. You could say that the calendar rioters were the late Georgian equivalent of an urban myth.”
The matter was debated thoroughly in Parliament, and one satirical painting portrays a feast organized by the Whig political party on election night, with a leaflet carelessly underfoot, seemingly stolen from the opposition Tory party, which reads, “We want our eleven days back!” Not all was doom and gloom across the Atlantic, with Benjamin Franklin reportedly writing, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”
Historic UK recounts another amusing tale:
“According to W.M. Jamieson in his book, ‘Murders Myths and Monuments of North Staffordshire,’ there is a tale about one William Willett of Endon. Always keen on a joke, he apparently wagered that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights. On the evening of September 2nd 1752, he started to jig around the village and continued all through the night. The next morning, September 14th by the new calendar, he stopped dancing and claimed his bets!”
Political intrigue, culture, and spiritual beliefs have as much influence as the natural cycle of the Earth on the marking of time. The French revolutionaries invented their own calendar in the 1700s to remove royalist and religious influence and mark the beginning of the Republican Age, although it was abandoned with the formation of a new empire shortly thereafter. Russia finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918, following the Soviet Revolution. Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar – which is now 13 days removed from the Gregorian calendar – while varied societies across the world continue to observe their own systems, if only for the sake of tradition.
So, here’s wishing a Happy New Year to all – but keep in mind that a new stage in life can begin at any time you choose, and not just on Jan. 1.