Januarius I, XLVI (January 1, 46)
You don’t have to know a lot of history to know that the Romans were, among other things, party animals. Their parties went on for days. I guess the last man left standing won.
So it should not come as much of a surprise to learn that unseemly celebrations, on December 31 as the eve of a new year, began with these amazing people. (Of course, with the Romans, the celebration certainly didn’t end at midnight on January 1. Ha. I don’t think so.)
The start of a new year has been celebrated by humans since the invention of the first calendar. Recorded history takes us back only 4000 years, but sure enough, on new year’s eve 4000 years ago, there’s a party going on in Babylon (present day Iraq). They started their new year at the first new moon following the vernal equinox, which is the day in late March that is equally divided between daylight and darkness. It was a religious festival, but the festivities went on, with fireworks, for eleven days.
Time is an illusion, you know. Human beings have sort of made it up as they went along, devising first one, then another calendar, starting their “new year” in conjunction with some change in nature or an astronomical event and then tying it to some religious and/or political purpose.
The Egyptian’s, those quintessential mystics, timed their new year to the rising of the brilliant star, Sirius, and the annual flooding of the Nile.
The Chinese new year is the most important holiday of the year in China. It marks the passing of winter and is also known as the “spring festival.” Glowing lanterns and intricate, exquisitely delicate, red paper cut-outs of flowers and animals adorn China at this deliriously happy time. Everyone is wishing everyone good fortune and happiness and happiness abounds on new year’s eve when families gather for a fifteen-course meal and plum and rice wines. The Chinese new year celebration goes on for fifteen days.
The Aztecs ( in present-day Mexico) devised a calendar with a 52-year cycle, so if you were an Aztec, you had to wait 52 years for a new year’s celebration, which was just as well since, true to form for the Aztecs, it began with a gory human sacrifice performed by priests on the summit of a volcano.
Meanwhile, back in Rome in the year 46 BC, Julius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, sat down with the leading astronomers and mathematicians of the time and said, “Look here now. We have a situation.” He was an emperor, so they listened politely. “Our calendar’s off.”
“Well, if you count the sunrisings and sunsettings, they don’t match up with the days on the calendar. It’s totally out of whack.”
“Mmmmm…..yes,” heads nodding.
Long story short, he fixed it. With the astronomer, Sosigenes, Julius Caesar created the Julian (get it?) calendar (generals and emperors are not generally noted for their modesty), with a 365-day, 12-month cycle with a leap year in Februrarius every 4th year. It’s like how sometimes, to keep in step with others, you have to do a little skip-step. That’s all. Just do a little skip-step and you’re back in rhythm and time marches on. (If you’re Julius Caesar, you can make a calendar work any way you want it to.) Our hero also decided that the new year would begin on Januarius 1 in honor of Janus, the god of beginnnings. Let the good times roll.
Five hundred years go by. Rome is no longer an empire; it is a city and in the palace sits a pope, Pope Gregory XIII, who is bothered by the fact that the Julian calendar is out of sync with the seasons. Again. The calendar year gains about 3 days every four centuries. A serious—“gravissimas”—affair. Result? The new Gregorian (get it?) calendar issued in 1582.
Well then. We’ve been using this calendar for about 500 years now, so is it time for a new one? Whatever. When whoever’s in charge tells you it’s new year’s eve, it’s New Year’s Eve. Don’t worry about it. Just have a good time.