Just another day

A very large number of my Internet acquaintances along with both the English and German language media that I have access to are indulging in their yearly hysteria because today is New Year’s Eve and tomorrow is New Year’s Day, what they all seem to have forgotten is that it’s actually just another day.

A part, but by no means all, of human kind has arbitrarily decided to designate today as the day that they stop counting the days of the sun’s annual journey around the ecliptic and tomorrow start again from one. I say a part but by no means all because tomorrow is only New Year’s Day on the Gregorian calendar but not on many, many other calendars currently in use throughout the world, for example the Jewish, Muslim, Persian, Chinese, Vietnamese and numerous others.


The analemma traces the position of the sun in the sky throughout the solar year Source: KBCC Meteorology

The Gregorian New Year’s celebration doesn’t even coincide with a significant day in the annual solar journey, either of the equinoxes when the day and night are equally long or either of the solstices in summer with the longest day or in winter with the shortest day. My favoured candidate for New Year’s would be the winter solstice with, for me in the northern hemisphere, the start of the slow climb to spring and then on to summer, a genuine reason to celebrate and not an arbitrary and artificial one.

January the first wasn’t always the beginning of the calendrical year. Originally the Romans, from whom we inherit our calendar, celebrated the start of the year on 1 March, as can be seen from the names of their months, September is the seventh month, December the tenth.

Some time before Julius Caesar introduced the solar calendar, that would go on to bear his name, in 46 BCE the Romans moved the start of the year from 1 March to 1 January, the feast of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. In the Middle Ages some countries, not keen to celebrate a pagan festival, moved New Year’s Day to 25 March the Christian Feast of the Annunciation, that is the day that Mary supposedly became pregnant with Jesus. This led to two different ways of numbering the days of the year, Circumcision Style starting from 1 January, Circumcision of Our Lord in the Church calendar and Annunciation Style from 25 March. For a time in the Middle Ages the start of the year was counted by some from the 25 December, Nativity Style, or from the Easter Feast, Easter Style. The latter was considered somewhat inconvenient because Easter is a moveable feast.

When Pope Gregory introduced his calendar reform in 1582 his reform committee has settled on 1 January as the unified start of the year. Some countries, most notably Great Britain and its colonies, which initially rejected the Catholic calendar reform retained the Annunciation Style of counting leading to the strange anomaly of Newton’s date of death. On the Gregorian calendar, new style, he not only died eleven days but a whole year later than on the Julian calendar, old style.

So when you set out, to do what ever it is that you plan to do, to celebrate this evening just remember that in reality today is just another day in the sun’s seemingly endless journey along the ecliptic and any other day would do just as well and has done so throughout human history and continues to do so in many other cultures.

However what ever your beliefs and no mater which calendar you follow and on which day you celebrate the start of another round of the loop, I wish you all the best for the next 366 days of your life, as 2016 is a leap year on the Gregorian calendar.


Post modified 22 December 2017, see comments on original version, Baerista was right and I was wrong.


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21 responses to “Just another day

  1. wmconnolley

    > My favoured candidate for New Year’s would be…

    At the intersection of the analemma, since that’s the only unique point. Although, annoyingly, you’d have to decide which of the points to pick. Errm, so to speak.

  2. As an ex-astronomer, I would like to put in a plug for Julian Days as a fully numeric time format (and so perfectly suited to our modern computer age). The only difficulty is that Julian Days begin at 12:00 UT, so people in Europe will have to get used to two-day lunches.

  3. Ian H Spedding

    As a confirmed Trekkie since the year dot I do feel bound to point out that it is high time we abandoned all these antiquated calendrical systems and agree to adopt Stardates as our calendar of choice. The current Stardate, for those few who don’t know, being 69464.7.

    As an aside, I would be curious to know your opinion of a short series of lengthy posts at the blog Uncommon Descent discussing the history of methodological naturalism, written by a regular contributor there, vjtorley.

  4. Baerista

    Unusually for this blog, there are a few doubtful claims here:
    “Julius Caesar introduced the solar calendar, that would go on to bear his name, in 46 BCE he moved the start of the year from 25 March to 1 January.”
    This sounds unlikely given that the calendar before the Julian reform was not solar and hence would not have associated the spring equinox with 25 March or any other date. I believe there is some evidence that the old Roman calendar began on 1 March (which explains the month names from September to December), but 25 March did not become significant until after the Julian reform.

    “When Pope Gregory introduced his calendar reform in 1582 his reform committee has settled on 1 January as the unified start of the year.”

    I would be interested in seeing a source that attests to this decision. All I have read on the Gregorian reform left me with the impression that the start of the year was not an issue in 1582.

    • The original Roman lunar calendar is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery but it is thought to have commenced with the spring equinox, which now falls in the middle of March but was then the start of the first of ten lunar months in a 355 day calendar. People using lunar calendars were astronomically well aware of the equinoxes and the solstices and acknowledged and celebrated them, so no contradiction there.

      However the calendar that Julius Caesar replaced was a lunar-solar calendar with leap months intercalated by the Pontifex Maximus when deemed by him necessary to bring the calendar back into alignment with the solar year. However political elections and terms of office were determined by this calendar which led to deliberate manipulation by various office holders causing the calendrical confusion that led Julius Caesar to introduce a purely solar calendar.

      I would however add that there is some evidence that 1 January became the New Year’s Day earlier than Caesar’s calendar reform.

      I may have formulated the comments on the Gregorian calendar reform somewhat sloppily. As I pointed out in the preceding paragraph, there were several different New Year’s Day conventions in operation throughout Europe in the Middle Ages under the Julian calendar. Although, as far as I known, Gregory’s calendar committee did not address this confusion directly they did decree that their calendar started on 1 January. As this calendar then became obligatory for all Catholics throughout the world it effectively removed the possibility of alternative New Year’s Days for all Catholics.

      Later when the Protestant countries came to accept the Gregorian calendar they too adopted the universal 1 January New Year’s day.

      • Baerista

        Thanks for your response. I agree that there’s no contradiction between having a lunar calendar and starting the year close to the vernal equinox. But this equinox was not fixed on 25 March. I therefore still think your initial statement that Caesar replaced a beginning of the year on 25 March with one on 1 January is worth correcting. As you say yourself, 1 January was already the head of the year prior to Caesar’s reform; 25 March, on the other hand, never played this role in ancient Rome (unlike 1 March).

        I don’t see any evidence that the Gregorian committee “did decree that their calendar started on 1 January”. I have found no such statement in the sources. Of course calendars issued in the context of this reform started with January, but so did virtually every calendar throughout the Middle Ages, regardless of whether its users placed the epoch of their era on this date or any other (such as 25 March). Medieval and early modern people were perfectly capable of distinguishing between the start of the calendar and the start of the era-year.

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  6. C M Graney

    Well, my pick for the first day of the year is Perihelion Day — the day on which the Earth is closest to the Sun, and the Sun has its largest apparent diameter. That was January 2 this year. Unlike the solstice, there is only one (there is, of course, also an Aphelion Day), and it is the same for everyone everywhere on Earth.

  7. margarita141

    Me ha parecido muy interesante el artículo.

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  11. Wolfgang Köberer

    Thanks for the – as always – enllghtening post. Just a small correction: “December” is the tenth, not the twelfth month according to the Romans.

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