On this first day of 2016, I find myself pondering why January 1 marks the beginning of a new year. As with so many traditions lacking astronomical substance or scientific reason, it starts to make sense when considering ancient history.
Ancient Rome celebrated a mid winter festival in honour of the god Janus. The god of “doorways and beginnings”, Janus had two faces – one looked to the future, the other to the past. Januarius was the first month of the Roman calendar, a time when citizens exchanged gifts of lamps to light the coming year.
The earliest record of new year celebrations comes from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Long before Roman Janus, Mesopotamian New Year fell in March with observance of the vernal equinox. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians partied in September with the fall equinox. Ancient Greece favored winter solstice on December 20. It was a free for all until introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, since the 16th century January 1st has heralded the new year. That said, make no mistake about it – we can all thank Janus for our hangover.