The end of the year is of course a very arbitrary thing after all circles have no beginning and no end. They are so to speak infinite in length. No matter how long you travel around a circle you will never come to its end or in fact it’s beginning. It is are like the huge dragon worm of Norse mythology that circles the world biting its own tail although in this case there is no head or tail just a continuous circle.
Of course the orbit of the earth around the sun which is the basis for the idea of the year as a circle does in fact take one year or c. 365.25 days to travel one complete turn round the sun. And further the orbit of the earth around the sun is not a perfect circle it is in fact an ellipse with the sun at one foci. However it is close enough to a circle to for the orbit to be so described and besides it still is a loop that never ends.1
Now men could calculate dates in many ways. The Maya used the number of days from an arbitrary point in time and not by years. However the Maya were aware of the “true” year of c. 365 days they just didn’t use it in their calendar. Thus the Maya did not have a “year end” like the one we know. In fact their calendar had 18 months of 20 days each with a special month of 5 days at the end that were deemed to be rather unlucky and so marked by special ceremonies. Then the year so to speak started again.2
In the western tradition the year end as been associated with two dates there is of course the one we know use of December 31st and the vernal Equinox that occurred on c. March 21 led to most Medieval Europeans making the beginning of year March 25. What was also important was that the date of March 25 was associated with the celebration of Easter, which because it was calculated by cycles of the moon varies from year to year. (From late March to late April).3
Now the beginning of the year around the vernal Equinox makes sense in that not only is that the midpoint between the winter and summer solstice, respectively the shortest and longest days of the year in the Northern hemisphere, but it also represents the beginning of spring.4
After the long “sleep” of winter certainly the beginning of spring is a pretty good choice of the time of year to begin the year.
It must be remembered that Winter was commonly conceived of as a sort of death and Spring a sort of birth so that to associate Spring with a beginning, just as birth is a beginning is not a surprise.
In fact it appears that the Romans before Julius Caesar’s calendar reforms started the year with the vernal equinox, or the beginning of Spring. Julius Caesar took the ancient Egyptian calendar, which was far more accurate than the traditional Roman calendar and adopted it, with modifications for the Romans. One of the things that Julius took from the Egyptians was the association of the beginning of the year with the Winter solstice. In order for the year not to start inside a month Julius Caesar had the start of the year set at January 1.4
The Egyptians centered the way they calculated their year around the Sun, whereas the Romans, traditionally, had a Lunar calendar.
One of the most terrifying to ancient man phenomena was the progressive diminution of length of the day. There was the dread that the Sun, whose light was absolutely essential for life, would eventually disappear and everlasting night i.e., death would settle upon the earth. The result was that the time of the Winter Solstice was a time of great fear, that the diminution of the Sun would continue and death would defeat life permanently. So that the first clear observation that the days were lengthening again was a time of great rejoicing in many societies.5 Thus once again Life would emerge victorious in its battle with death, darkness, decay etc.
Thus many societies would calculate the beginning of the year from the Winter Solstice or near it. In fact that old Roman fe4stival of Saturnalia, on December 25, was a solstice celebration basically celebrating the “rebirth” of the Sun. Of course eventually the Christian Church co-opted Saturnalia by making December 25th the birth date of Jesus. But then it does seem fitting that a birth be celebrated at the time of the solstice.6
As mentioned above during much of the Middle Ages the beginning of the year was set around the Vernal equinox or Easter. One of the reasons being to get away from the “pagan” calendar of Julius Caesar. Many nations as mentioned above accepted the date of March 25th for the beginning of the year.
Eventually the date of January 1st for the beginning of the year was accepted again. A very strong impetus being given by Pope Gregory XIII in the 17th century, with his calendar reform where he gave a major impetus to using January 1st as the beginning of the year by so decreeing it.7
Thus the circle or ellipse that has no end or begging is given an end and beginning by the shift of seasons and the shortening and lengthening of days.
And with that Happy New Year!!
1. Earth’s Orbit, Wikipedia Here.
2. Sharer, Robert J, & Traxler, Loa P, The Ancient Maya, Sixth Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2006, pp. 102-120.
3. Diehl, Daniel, & Donnelly, Mark P, Medieval Celebrations, Second Revised Edition, Stackpole Books, New York, 2011, pp. 27-30.
4. IBID & Julian Calendar, Wikipedia Here.
5. Krupp, E. C, A Sky for All Seasons, in In Search of Ancient Astronomies, Ed. Krupp, E.C., McGraw-Hill book co, New York, 1978, pp. 1-37.
6. Saturnalia, Wikipedia Here.
7. Diehl et al, Gregorian Calendar, Wikipedia Here.