By Daniel J. McLaughlin
On the stroke of midnight, the fireworks will soar in the sky, and drunkards will tunelessly belt out their rendition of 'Auld Lang Syne' (making up the words because they cannot remember past the first verse). Resolutions will be made to be broken only days - or hours - later. Theresa May will be grateful for her political survival after a difficult year, and America will raise a toast to its own survival after a year of Donald Trump. The transition between December 31 and January 1 simultaneously marks a massive party and a hangover - a celebration for things to come, and recovering from the things that have passed. But why do we do it?
New Year's Day was not always celebrated on January 1. The earliest recorded festivities in honour of a new year's arrival dates back 4,000 years to the Babylonians. They marked the new year with the first new moon following the vernal equinox - the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness, according to History.com. The early Romans also celebrated the new year in March, with the calendar year beginning on March 1 - roughly the beginning of planting season.
This ancient Roman calendar, based on a lunar system, became grossly inaccurate over the centuries. Salon notes that Roman politicians could be partly blamed for this, as they "frequently altered it in order to lengthen their own terms in office or shorten those of their opponents". Enter Julius Caesar who consulted with the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time, including an Alexandrian astronomer called Sosigenes. Their new calendar followed the solar, not the lunar, cycle - an Egyptian trick - with January 1 marking the beginning of the Julian calendar.
Caesar and Sosiegenes, however, made a slight error in their mathematical calculations. They had failed to calculate the correct value for the solar year as 365.242199 days, not 365.25 days. By the year 1000AD, the 11-minute-a-year error added seven days, and by the mid-15th century, this had increased to 10 days.
There was toing and froing between the start of Christmas and the traditional March being used as the start of the year, following the fall of the Roman Empire. As Time magazine notes, the old March-start calendars have been "hidden in plain sight": September, the ninth month of our year, is Latin for seventh month; October for eight month; November for ninth, December for tenth. The days of the month would probably be more obvious without a few Roman gods and emperors thrown in the mix. Quintilis was changed to Julius (July) in 44BC, with the month of Sextilis renamed Augustus (August) later on. January represents Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings - with one face looking back into the past and the other looking forward into the future - and March is the month of Mars, the god of war and, less impressively but still integral, the guardian of agriculture.
The Gregorian calendar, the brainchild of Pope Gregory XIII and Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius, deducted 10 days from the year, and established the new rule that only one of every four centennial years should be a leap year. January 1, again, was the first day of the year. It was implemented in Europe in 1582, but did not come into effect in England until 1752 - with the colonies, including the New World soon to become the United States, following suit.
January 1 is almost universally recognised as the beginning of the new year, with Live Science listing a few exceptions including Afghanistan, Ethiopian, Iran, Nepal and Saudi Arabia - who rely on their own calendrical conventions.
Whether you will be bring in the new year on January 1, or getting on with an ordinary day of the week, Happy New Year - or Happy Monday!