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Julius Caesar's old dictum continues to rule us

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001

The fact that Jan. 1 is the first day of our calendar year is totally arbitrary, of course. There is nothing special about the day. If you could peer down on the Earth's orbit from above, you would not discern anything unique about our position. We do not pass over a big square that says, "GO -- Collect $200 Salary As You Pass."

It would make more sense to use the winter solstice, about Dec. 21, as New Year's Day. That's the shortest day of the year, and there is no place to go but up. Lots of ancient cultures agreed.

It also would make more sense to use the spring equinox, about March 21, with all the optimism and renewal and, uh, fertility that springtime brings. Many civilizations used that date too.

But -- Jan. 1? Phooey. The main reason Jan. 1 is the first day of our year is that the emperors of ancient Rome took office on that day, and so Jan. 1 was the first day of their year.

January, as you may remember, is named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways and arches. Janus had two faces, not because he was a politician, but because he looked both ahead into the future and back into the past.

The Romans were big on arches. This made Janus a bigger deal that you might think. Lots of times the Romans would throw up a stand-alone arch along a roadway just for luck. When a Roman army marched off to war, it made sure to pass through an arch.

The ancient calendar was a complete mess, so Julius Caesar decided to straighten it out in 46 B.C. (In case you are being a smarty-pants, no, they did not know it was "B.C." We didn't come up with the B.C.-A.D. thing until later.)

The Julian calendar was better, but it still had problems. A Julian year was a fraction longer (a few hours, actually) than the actual travel of the Earth around the sun. Over the centuries, it fell further and further behind the actual position of the sun in the sky.

By the 16th century, the Catholic Church was besieged with complaints that the spring equinox was too early and Easter was falling ridiculously late. Pope Gregory XIII responded by having a new, improved calendar drawn up. The main feature of this Gregorian calendar was a leap day every four years to keep the calendar in sync with our orbit around the sun.

Oh, and as almost a minor matter, the Gregorian calendar declared that Jan. 1 was the first day of the year. Just like old times.

The Gregorian calendar did not sit well in some quarters. The English, who celebrated New Year's Day on March 25, were especially bitter about accepting the new calendar from Rome. Remember, Elizabeth I and the Catholics were not best buddies. So England did not warm up to the idea until 1751, when Parliament finally passed "An Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year, and for Correcting the Calendar Now In Use."

To catch up with the Gregorian calendar, the date of Sept. 2, 1752, was immediately followed by Sept. 14, 1752. Supposedly, many English citizens panicked at the change, demanding the return of their stolen 11 days.

Jan. 1, 1753, meanwhile, became the next New Year's Day. Because the previous year had begun on March 25, 1752, the year of 1752 was only nine months long. And there are no such dates in English history as Jan. 1, 1752, to March 25, 1752 -- one January through March was the end of 1751, and the next occurrence of those months was the beginning of 1753.

See, who knew that choosing a New Year's Day could be so complicated? This is why, at the onset of 2001, I would like to say I am deeply grateful for all the stuff we have figured out so far. I remain optimistic about the rest.

Times researcher Caryn Baird helped dig up these facts. I also relied on two encyclopedias, World Book and Britannica, and a fun book called Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History (Oxford University Press, 1998).

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