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Is it January?

Being a slow starter, I prefer the good old days when January began in March.

By John Cadley


If you’re anything like me—heaven forbid—you’re probably wondering how January got here so fast. Didn’t we just have January like … two weeks ago? I’m never ready for January. By the time I am ready it’s March—and if I lived in another era that’s exactly when January would be.

The first known celebration of New Year’s was in Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C., held—you guessed it—in mid-March. We know this because archeologists have found party hats with Happy Vernal Equinox! written on them. Nobody had to worry about January because there was no January! Back then the year had only 10 months. Imagine that! No stupid parties, no hopeless New Year’s resolutions, no dropping that ridiculous ball in Times Square.

Then in 700 B.C., the second Roman emperor, Numa Pompilius, came along and decided the year needed more months. The Romans could do stuff like that. Who was going to argue? So he added January and February, earning the ever-lasting enmity of folks like me who live in northern climates and for whom those particular months are the nearliteral equivalent of hell freezing over. Thanks, Numa. May your frozen pipes burst at 3 a.m. and you have to pay the plumber double for emergency service.

However, this early Roman calendar wasn’t all that precise. It kept falling out of phase with the seasons (Hey Flavius, isn’t 28 degrees a little cold for June?) and the politicians kept adding a few days to extend their terms. They called it working overtime.

This continues until 46 B.C. when The Man Himself—Julius Caesar—comes to power and tells the Senate that not only is he sick of all the confusion, but if he misses his wife’s birthday one more time she’s going to throw him and his laurel wreath out the window. So Julius consults an astronomer named Sosigenes, who tells him to forget the lunar cycle and follow the solar year like the Egyptians. Caesar liked the Egyptians. He even dated one. Upon completing their calculations, Caesar announces that the year is now 365 and 1/4 days long, with one extra day in February every four years to keep things accurate. However, this could only be accomplished mathematically if he added 67 days to 46 B.C., which he did. He apologized by calling 46 B.C. “the last year of confusion.” If only.

So that’s how March became January. And maybe it’s a good thing after all.

Beginning in 45 B.C., then, we have the Julian calendar with the new year beginning on January 1. Sort of. For all their diligence, Caesar and Sosigenes didn’t get the correct value for the solar year quite right, calculating it as 365.25 days when it is actually 365.242199 days. This amounted to an error of 11 minutes a year, which doesn’t seem like much until the years start adding up. By the year 1000 A.D. the Julian calendar was off by seven days, and by the middle of the 15th century it was a full 10 days out of whack. That’s why everybody in the Middle Ages had bad teeth. They kept missing their dental appointments.

The Roman Pontiff at the time was Pope Gregory XIII, and he wasn’t too happy about not knowing when Easter would be every year. I mean, of all people, he was supposed to know. So he got his own astronomer, Christopher Clavius, to set things straight, which he did by lopping 10 days off the current year. Thus, in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was introduced by a papal bull which informed the populace that the day after Thursday, October 4, would not be Friday, October 5, but Friday, October 15. Aside from a brief riot by people whose birthdays fell within the excised days (We want cake! We want presents!), the Gregorian calendar was generally accepted.

But not by all. The United Kingdom, for instance, didn’t adopt it until 1752. (Gotta love the Brits for not rushing into things.) Russia waited until 1918, having a little revolution to take care of first. And Greece didn’t switch until 1992, when they realized they were double booking tourist groups at the Acropolis.

So that’s how March became January. And maybe it’s a good thing after all. If New Year’s was still in March it would come right after St. Patrick’s Day—and I would need paramedics to help me write my April column.