Welcome to January

Janus-VaticanWay back at the dawn of calendrical time (about 800 BC give or take a few centuries) there were only ten months in the calender. They were named, rather sensibly, “First Month,” “Second Month,” etc. We remnants of these names in the months of September (seventh month), October (eighth month), November (ninth month), and December (tenth month.) These ten months made up 304 days of the year. The remaining fifty-one days that took place between December and March were considered unlucky and thus remained unnamed. This was the dead of winter, and it was believed wise to talk about what might live in the dead of winter as little as possible.

New year’s day was celebrated on March 25, the beginning of spring, and the festivities lasted for a week.

In about 713 BC a guy named Numa came along and decided that the Roman calendar was rubbish. It was ridiculous, he said, to be afraid of winter months. It was even numbers that were unlucky. So he took a few days from the existing months to make sure they all had either 29 or 31 days. He took the days he’d accumulated, and added them to the fifty-one days of winter. He divided the days into two months, and called the first one “January” after Janus, the two faced god of beginnings and endings and passage of time. He called the second one February, after the Roman festival of purification, and allocated it twenty-eight days. He figured that the unlucky number of days would make sure no one shirked on the purification rites and sacrifices.

January became the first month of the year, and January 1st became New Year’s Day.


Not everybody heard that new year’s day had been changed, and not everybody cared. As last as the sixteenth century people were celebrating new years whenever they wanted: March 1, Easter, March 25, or even December 25. The calender may start in January, but the year started in the spring, as all sensible people knew. However, the adoption of the Gregorian Calender (beginning by papal decree in 1582) began to introduce a standard New Year’s as January 1st. And the time honoured tradition of conformity by peer pressure, those who were up to date in modern calender systems and celebrated the new year in the traditional Roman method began to mock those who did not for being outdated and ignorant.

They called them April Fools.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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