New Year's Day


(This 979th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 27, 2009.)


Why does the New Year begin on January 1? Today that date seems not just appropriate but somehow scientifically fixed.


Not so.


Evidence suggests that in about 2000 BCE, Mesopotamians celebrated the New Year at the time of the vernal equinox, on about March 21. Note: BCE, a reader informs me, represents Before the Common Era, replacing the old BC just as CE for Common Era now replaces AD, the years themselves remaining as in the past. Thus we will soon begin the year 2010 CE.


Accounts vary but one suggests that the early Romans designated March 1 as the beginning of the year. They added the emperor months of July and August in 45 BCE, and with the year beginning in March, the months of September, October, November and December represented the Latin for seven, eight, nine and ten. February, coming at the end of the year, was then the appropriate month to make calendar adjustments like our current Leap Years.


Even earlier, in 153 BCE, January 1 had been first named New Year's Day. Politics dictated this for at least part of the Roman community as it made the calendar conform to the civil year when Roman consuls took office.


However that worked out, it did not settle matters. As Christianity spread across Europe during the Middle Ages, increasingly Romans were considered pagans. In 567 CE the January 1 year start was abolished by the Council of Tours. This left things in limbo and a number of choices were selected. Christian celebrations like the Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day (when Mary learned that she was pregnant with Jesus) on March 25, Christmas Day on December 25 and even Easter were named New Year's Day. Still others retained March 1 as the beginning of the year.


Then in 1582, the Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory, was adopted. This is essentially the calendar we live by today and it again designated January 1 as New Year's Day.


But did that settle things? Indeed not. That calendar was not adopted by many countries for almost two centuries. In fact, the British Empire – including its American colonies – did not accept this calendar until 1752. Until then our forebears celebrated the New Year in March.


And until this day, other cultures celebrate the New Year on different dates. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurs on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri, which usually falls in September. The Chinese Lunar New Year begins with the new moon of the first lunar month, which falls between our January 21 and February 21. Those following the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate New Year's Day on January 14, retaining a vestige of the older Julian calendar. The Tamil state of India also begins its year on this date.


Because the Muslim religious calendar differs in length from ours by eleven days, the Islamic New Year is not fixed to a Gregorian date. In fact, there were two Muslim New Year's Days in 2008. This year's date was December 18.


And those are just representative of the many dates for New Year's Day.


New Year's Day is also celebrated differently. We have our champagne, paper streamers and silly hats, "Auld Lang Syne" singing, and hearty kisses. Other countries differ.


In Denmark you hope to find your front porch littered with a pile of broken dishes at New Years. People save old dishes all year in order to throw them at their friends' homes on New Year's Eve. Many broken dishes are a symbol that you have many friends!


In Equador Ano Viejo is celebrated by creating a scarecrow-like dummy stuffed with old newspapers and firecrackers to represent the year just ending. At midnight the dummy is set on fire. As the dummy burns, the firecrackers also go off to add to the festivities.


In Greece, St. Basil fills the children's shoes with presents at midnight. (Will our merchants pick up on this as an excuse to further extend our holiday mass buying hysteria?)


One New Year tradition that dates back to the early Babylonians is making resolutions. The early Babylonian's most popular resolution was to return things borrowed from neighbors. We should learn from them.


Whenever you celebrate its commencement, may your 2010 be a happy year.



Added note: My friend, Professor Claude Welch of the University at Buffalo, has suggested the following answers to the question, What year is it?


*  Among the many Hindu calendars the Vikrama Samvat calendar was most widely prevalent, and it is roughly 57 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. That is, add 57 to 2010 to get V.S. 2067.


*  In the Jewish calendar 2010 is 5070, which began with Rosh Hashanah.


*  The Muslim calendar began in 622 CE; therefore subtract 622 from our year: 2010 is thus 1388.


*  The Japanese calendar starts with the country's fabled founding in 660 BCE; therefore add 660 to ours, making 2010 into 2670. However, their preferred date is in terms of their reigning Emperor; hence, 2010 is Heisei 22. The Western calendar was adopted in 1868, as part of the Meiji Restoration.


*  The Chinese: New Year varies, with a start in January or February, according to a 12-year cycle. January 2010 is still the Year of the Ox.