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Holiday Insight: New Year's Day

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General Information

New Year's Day signifies the end of one year and the beginning of another. Different cultures celebrate the event in various ways and on various days, however, most developed cultures that utilize the Gregorian calendar celebrate New Year's Day on January 1st. Though January 1st signifies the actual changeover of the years, the celebration usually begins on December 31st or New Year's Eve. Most celebration activities are geared toward being in place to perform some specialized custom at midnight when changeover occurs.

History of New Year's Day

New Year's Day defines the first day of the many historical calendar systems devised to track periods of time. The earliest, recorded calendars establish days that are synchronized to visible astronomical objects such as planets, the sun and moon. Ancient Egypt and other civilizations, located near the equator, are thought to have synchronized calendar days to the motion of the planet Venus. Venus, like the moon, has the unique characteristic of being visible during both day and night under ideal conditions. Other astronomical based calendars include lunar calendars, synchronized to the motion of the moon; solar calendars, synchronized to motions of the sun; and lunisolar calendars, synchronized to both the sun and moon. There are also arbitrary calendars, which bear no relationship to the sun or moon, and are used to define periods of time, such as a week.

The oldest ancient Roman calendar dates back to 753 BC. It was a lunar calendar that accounted for the 10 months, March through December. The months were Martius (31 days), Aprilis (30 days), Maius (31 days), Junius (30 days), Quintilis (31 days), Sextilis (30 days), September (30 days), October (31 days), November (30 days) and December (30 days). This calendar, which disregarded sixty-one winter days, consisted of 304 days. About 700 BC, the months of January (31 days) and February (29 days, 30 in leap years) were added to the end of the calendar to coincide with the lunar year of 364 days. Because the Roman's were superstitious about even numbers, an additional day was added to August to make the calendar year total 365 days. There is also allegation that Caesar Augustus (August, renamed Sextilis in his honor) took a day from February and added it to August so that July, named in honor of Julius Caesar, would not contain more days than his month of August. However, there is no historical evidence to support the allegation.

In any case, calendar years were named after Consul, the highest elected office of the Roman Republic, who served in the given year and were elected each January. Roman priest were free to, at their own discretion, add an intercalary month, Mercedonius (22 days) behind February. Mercedonius was only to be included in leap years with the intent of realigning the year with the seasons. However, the priests often forgot to insert the month at the appropriate time. Some priests also varied the length of this intercalary month dependent upon whether they wanted to prolong the Consul's duty time or force them out early. With the adaptation of the Julian calendar in 45 BC, the month of Mercedonius was eliminated and January 1st was, and continues to be, the established start of the New Year.

Date of Celebration

New Year's Day celebrations, for cultures that utilize the Gregorian calendar, usually begin on New Years Eve, December 31th, and continue on into the early hours of New Year's Day and beyond.

Cultures that continue to utilize the Julian calendar celebrate New Year's Day on the 14th day of January. Other cultures, which use different calendar systems, celebrate New Year's Day at varying times relative to the Gregorian calendar. Some examples include:

CultureEventEquivalent Gregorian Date
Chinese New Year
Vietnamese New Year
At winter's new moonBetween January 21st and February 21st
Rosh Hashanah163 days following PassoverUntil year 2013, after Sept. 5th, but before Oct. 5th
After year 2013, after Sept. 6th, but before Oct. 5th
Telugu New YearThe advent of the lunar yearBetween March and April.
Thai New Year Between April 13th and 15th
Ethiopian New Year September 11th
Bengali New Year April 14th or 15th
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