What makes a new year a new year?
Happy New Year! At the time of writing, the Gregorian New Year lies in the rear-view mirror, and we have arrived at the Lunar New Year.
Around the world, people’s lived are governed and influenced by many calendars. While they differ in their structures, motivations and durations, they are all cyclic. In spite of this multiplicity, one system is used officially by all nations. Before formal international standards defined date and time through peace and consensus, the Gregorian calendar was already the dominant calendar in the world because of European imperialism and religion, all of which in turn goes back to the Romans.
What did the Romans ever do for us? They gave us the idea of a stably aligned solar calendar with an easily determined number of days and they gave many European languages their month names, e.g., January is named for Janus, the god of transitions, beginnings, endings, etc.
But why does the Julian/Gregorian/ISO 8601/etc. year begin when it begins? Why is it 1st January and why is 1st January when it is and not at some other point in the Earth’s seasonal or orbital cycle? This question — more specifically, a social media exchange started by Dave Astels — and the arrival of another new year are the triggers for this post.
While decades, centuries and millennia are arbitrary things to celebrate, derived from decimal counting and our penchant for anchoring on — and getting excited about — numbers ending in 0, 00 or 000, one orbit around the Sun is a more obviously natural unit. If you’re looking for a passage of time to celebrate, a year seems like a good candidate. However, unlike personal birthdays and anniversaries, which are related to defined events in a personal timeline, an orbit doesn’t have a natural baseline.
For a cycle that stretches indefinitely into the future and indefinitely into the past, there is no natural start or end point that unequivocally defines a delimiter to count to or from. Although an orbit does have characteristics that could be used for this purpose — namely, the perihelion (the closest approach of Earth to the Sun) and the aphelion (when Earth is furthest from the Sun), which in 2020 occur on 5th January and 4th July, respectively — in practice, calendar systems do not define themselves in terms of orbital features.
Calendar boundaries are, instead, socially and historically defined and selected, marked out with rituals, ceremonies and celebrations, any one of which could serve as a start or end point. From Nyepi, the Balinese day of silence, to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The span of a year is also socially defined — not all years are based on the solar year. The idea that a calendar year contains a (fairly) fixed number of days is a relatively modern and culturally specific one.
Although named the Lunar New Year, the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar one rather than a strictly lunar one. The new year shifts around, but it is anchored rather than drifting. The years proceed through a larger cycle of twelve, each one denoted by a zodiacal animal — this post coincides with the start of Year of the Rat.
In an idealised world, this would give a tidy twelve-by-twelve system: twelve lunar months to a year; twelve years to a zodiac cycle. The relationship between the Earth and the Moon and the Sun, however, has no motivation to follow such an ideal and, indeed, does not. Lunar months do not align perfectly with solar years, so an intercalary thirteenth month needs to be inserted every few years to compensate for lunar month drift with respect to solar year, i.e., the Chinese calendar favours leap months over leap days, preferring month alignment with the Moon over year alignment with the Sun. In the long term, seasons matter more to agricultural societies than numerological coincidences.
It is also a nice coincidence that the twelve-year cycle corresponds closely to one orbit of Jupiter around the Sun. As with any form of astrology, there is nothing of cosmic significance at play: this is all apophenia. Although we may want to make sense of the universe, the universe and its workings are not here for our convenience or understanding.
Our predecessors, across many cultures, observed many cycles in their world: the cycle of the Sun from dawn till dusk, or the stars from dusk till dawn, giving us days; the cycle of the Moon, giving us months (the words month and moon are etymologically related); the passing of seasons accompanied by changes in the day and the positions of the Sun and the stars, giving us years. Not all of these cycles are commensurate with one another. And the more temperate the latitude, the more significant the seasonal cycle: whether it’s planting crops or storing food for the winter, you need to have a sense of when you are, wherever you are.
This seasonal influence is reflected in many calendars and festivals. Although it’s not the start of the calendar year, the winter solstice (the turning point from shortening to lengthening daylight hours) is just over a week from 1st January. This is not a coincidence. The winter solstice also players a role in the Chinese calendar: the eleventh month is defined to be the one that contains the winter solstice. Midwinter is a significant turning point when winter makes a difference to how you live.
Logically, the winter solstice would be as good a time as any to have as a fixed starting point. That said, it isn’t actually a fixed point: the solstice moves around, normally falling on 21st or 22nd December. Our international standards and our expectations about years are now at the point that changing the end of the year to be a movable feast rather than a fixed one is not going to happen.
The question, though, is to what degree this precision and fixedness mattered to the Romans, from whom we get the calendar. Clearly, it mattered enough that January is named for beginnings and is close to the solstice and the Roman feast of Saturnalia. But the precision we value in the modern world was not as significant to them. It was close enough — especially with what had gone before.
Before the Julian calendar, the definition of year was subject to many considerations and manipulations, including those of politicians (if your term in office based on a year, and you can alter the definition of year…). The calendar drifted wildly until Julius Caesar nailed it in place. The resulting January was close enough to the solstice (reckoned by some at that time to be 25th December), and stably so, and that was enough. There was no pressure that it needed to be somehow more perfectly aligned. Once fixed in place and widely adopted, it was difficult to change, no matter what the reason.
The Julian calendar solved many problems and, in doing so, set future expectations for the role of a calendar — first within the territorial and cultural influence of the Roman Empire and then beyond.
But we’re not done with the Romans, and their assumptions are not yet done with us. As with many cultures, both in the past and around the world today, the Romans did not live exclusively by a single calendar or have a singular idea of starting points.
Naming the first month after Janus clearly indicates a beginning… except that (1) January was not the first month and (2) the Romans also valued the vernal equinox — celebrated as Hilaria — as a starting point. The beginning of spring is found in March, the first Roman month. Hence why months 7, 8, 9 and 10 were hardcoded as septem, octo, novem and decem.