Question Time: How did Jan. 1 become New Year's Day, anyway?

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Last February, my daughter was watching a TV program about the Chinese New Year. She asked me a logical question: Why were the Chinese celebrating their New Year on Feb. 18?

I could answer the basics of her Chinese New Year query: It's based on cycles of the moon. (No follow-up questions, please.)

But an even better question, I told her, is this: Why do we celebrate ours on Jan. 1?

She shrugged. But I became intrigued and began to dig around. Here's what I found out.

It is odd if you think about it, which I'm sure you don't: Jan. 1 does not coincide with any event in the agricultural cycle, not seedtime or harvest. It contains neither solstice, equinox nor cross-quarter day. (A cross-quarter day is the halfway point between solstice and equinox -- Candlemas/Groundhog Day, May Day, Midsummer's Day, and Halloween/All Saints Day are the four cross-quarters.)

It does not commemorate any great religious event or tradition. (Some monsignor is reading this and saying aloud that Jan. 1 is the Feast of the Circumcision. I know, Father. I said "great religious event.") Jan. 1 just kind of sits there, conveniently located one week after Christmas, providing one last shebang before we are forced to look winter right in the teeth and get on with the grueling 10-week slog to spring.

I am a mailman and I know the slog intimately.

January is named for the Roman god Janus (or Ianus), a deity of gates and doorways, of beginnings and transitions. Janus has two faces, one looking backward and the other looking forward. He sees not only where we have been but also where we are going. It was pretty darn clever for those ancient Romans to name the first month of the year after the god of the gateway who can see both the year gone by and the year yet to come. Sadly that was not the case.

March was the first month of the Roman calendar; January was the 11th.

In a sense, this should come as no surprise. January, after all, is preceded by December, which means "10th month," which is itself preceded by November ("ninth month") October ("eighth month") and September ("seventh month"). Somehow, a very tidy numerical sequence got botched along the way and has never been corrected. So what happened, and why?

Originally, the Roman calendar had 10 months: Martius (for Mars, the god of war), Aprilis (from the Latin aperire, "to open"), Maius (from the Greek goddess Maia, equivalent to Bona Dea, the Roman goddess of fertility), Junius (for the goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter), Quintilius, Sextilius, September, October, November and December. Quintilius was renamed Julius in honor of Gaius Julius Caesar, and Sextilius was renamed Augustus for Augustus Caesar.

There were 61 days of winter that did not fall within the original calendar; they were apparently not worth the effort of naming. (So all of you with January and February birthdays, tough apples.) The months Ianuarius and Februarius (the latter from the Latin term februum, which means "purification") were affixed to the end of the year, supposedly, in 713 B.C.

It is because of February's position as month No. 12 that it has the fewest days and is subject to leap-year adjustment.

So, how did January go from being month No. 11 to month No. 1?

The answer is both straightforward and rather dull.

The Romans began their year not with a feast day or an astronomical occurrence, but with the swearing in of the Roman consuls. The consuls were the highest elected officials of the Roman Republic. Prior to 153 B.C., the consuls assumed office on March 15, and thus March 15 was the beginning of the Roman civil year.

Because of some problem in Spain in the year 153 B.C. (the nature of which seems to have been lost to the mists of time), the consuls assumed office on Jan. 1, to facilitate the First Consul, Quintius Fulvius Nobilior, getting to Spain as quickly as possible. Henceforth, all consuls and magistrates assumed office on Jan. 1.

New Year's Day has been Jan. 1 ever since.

If it seems arbitrary, it is. But any day picked by humans would be arbitrary. We Westerners tend to think linearly, as if the pages of the calendar could be pinned up one after another on some infinite clothesline.

But the year is not a line, it's a ring. Like all rings, it has no beginning and no end. We can decide that this spot or that spot is the beginning of the ring, but it's a fiction to serve our own purposes.

It's a fiction we need because, although the year is a ring, our lives are not.

All in all, the calendar we know, in spite of its inconsistencies, has worked out rather well for us. We wouldn't change it if you paid us.

And so a New Year's toast to:

• Quintus Fulvius Nobilior and his business trip to Spain

• Janus, who sees where we've been and knows where we're going

• And to all of us in our journey on the ring we will call 2008.


Daniel Deagler lives in Bucks County, Pa. ( cdeagler@comcast.net ).


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