What does that even mean?
The New Year is here and the first week of it is over.
How are those resolutions going so far? How is that whole 'being a better person thing' happening? Is this ‘holiday’ even a real thing? Does it really even mean anything?
Whether you see the new year as a chance to create a better version of yourself or to make fun of people that do, it is universally recognized as January 1st, (except maybe in China who will be celebrating it in February).
So where does this holiday come from? Why January 1st? And should we use it as an opportunity to improve ourselves?
People have actually been celebrating a ‘new year’ for quite some time. The earliest recorded ‘get-together’ goes back over four millennia (4000 years) with ancient Babylon. They didn’t exactly use January 1st as their day of renewal, but instead chose the vernal equinox (in March) with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. Very Taoist of them, no?
The Babylonians didn’t celebrate on the 1st of January, but they did see the new year as very symbolic time for new beginnings, even if it was just to recrown the current king.
Is it a coincidence that the United States has a presidential inauguration at the beginning of the year (even if it is the same president continuing his second term)? Even more surprising that it moved from the spring or vernal equinox to the Julian calendar new year like history itself had done.
And many other ancient civilizations had their own way of celebrating a new year depending on their own calendars, usually declaring the first day of the year to some agricultural or astronomical event. Egypt had their annual flooding. Yay, water slide! And the Chinese went with the second new moon after the winter solstice. The solstice being very significant for many civilizations.
January 1st became our day to mark a new year, a new beginning, with the Romans, the people who are more responsible for shaping our modern world than we sometimes realize. They initially had 10 months of 304 days beginning at the vernal equinox (created by Romulus, the founder of Rome) and later added Januarius and Februarius (by Numa Pompilius, who was not pompous).
It still wasn’t quite right though as the calendar still fell out of sync with the sun. So good ole Julius Caesar came along and made the Julian calendar which is damn near the same (Gregorian) calendar we have today. There are whispers that the Egyptians may have helped him out with that.
Of course the Christians came along and re-thought and reorganized the New Year to more significant Christian holidays such as December 25th and March 25. Only to later (thanks to Pope Gregory XIII) be re-established January 1st as New Year’s Day in 1582, while making the necessary adjustments that science and 1600 more years of knowledge aided in making the accurate calendar we use today.
Janus is wrongly attributed to January, it is Juno whom the month was named after. Despite that, Janus (as you will soon read) was still the God of beginnings and was celebrated at all new beginnings, including the first of each month. So even though January is named after Juno, January 1st and the New Year significance still belongs to Janus.
Before the Christians came along, January 1st (or New Year’s Day) was created, in part, to honor Janus, the Roman god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and endings, whose two faces made it easier to look into the past and future. The Romans celebrated with sacrifices, exchanging gifts, home decorations, and throwing entertaining (if not hedonistic) parties. Following Saturnalia, I imagine their collective hangovers would laugh maniacally at ours.
Janus was incredibly special for the Romans. Arriving before Jupiter (even having his name said before Jupiter in prayers) and having no Greek equivalent nor affected by Greek influence that made their gods human-like with love, hate, jealousy etc. Janus was a true Roman.
What is even more unique about Janus is the possibility he may have actually lived. One myth being that he was an exile from northern Greece and started a city named Janiculum, another saying he created Rome alongside Romulus. He was even said to have received Saturn. All of which lead to him becoming deified upon death.
Besides being a human turned God and founder of Rome who advised kings and received gods, he was considered to be:
Diuom deo or ‘god of gods’
God of the beginnings and ends
Janus bifrons or ‘the god who looked both ways’ since he was the god of all entrances and departures and every doorway and passage looks both ways
Custodian of the Universe
The Gatekeeper with a virga and set of keys
Protector of all started activities including inaugurating all seasons and the beginning of every month (to include January)
Protector of soldiers in times of war. In fact, soldiers had rituals to walk through the gates of Janus or else fear defeat and the gates were left open for their support unless during times of peace. The doors were almost never closed.
The Romans also coined him with two faces. One bearded, the other clean-shaven, to represent the past and future, and later came to represent wisdom.
Janus may be mostly unheard-of today other than having a month named after him that really wasn’t named after him. He may have been washed away with the changing of times, but if any god could appreciate the changing of times, I believe it would, ironically, be Janus himself. For the sake of his contribution to our modern society, literally or metaphorically, I still raise a glass in his honor.
Not the Stars’ Fault
So New Year’s may not exactly be tied to some ‘law’ of nature or physics that was predetermined by any particular god. It is no doubt a man-made civil event.
It doesn’t mean there wasn’t logic behind it or even perhaps divinely inspired. For most civilizations, the equinox in September or March made the most sense to celebrate a new year and time of change, for agricultural cycles if nothing else.
However, for us (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), early January makes a very logical time for a new beginning, for renewed hope. The December solstice is the shortest and therefore, the darkest day of the year for us. A week or so later, it was clearer (pun intended) that the days were getting ‘longer’, that the days were getting brighter (another pun).
These longer days meant a lot to our ancestors for many reasons, and to be honest, it still affects us today, especially emotionally and psychologically.
Now, what we didn’t know until recently, and perhaps our ancestors did not know, at least scientifically, but through divine inspiration, is that our Earth, our home, is in fact as close to the sun as it ever is around this time of the year. It is an event called perihelion.
This point in our orbit is named perihelion from the Greek words of ‘Peri’ meaning ‘near’ and ‘helio’ meaning ‘sun.’ For the science geeks out there, that’s about 3,100,000 miles (ca. 4,988,966 km) closer to the sun than at the aphelion.
Gods, Science, and Philosophy
So, is it all chance we celebrate new years when we do? Is it written in the stars? Does it even matter when we celebrate as long as we take a chance to celebrate the end of something and beginning of another?
Whether you cherish this time of year for religious reasons or more astronomical reasons or as the birthday of our way of measuring time, this break, this lull in time has an inherent ability to make us reflect on all we have experienced over the past year.
Exciting beginnings and melancholic endings. Achievements attained and goals reached with a bittersweet taste of memories and milestones of our human experience, some pleasurable, some painful. All of which have had their effect, some of which will shape us in our unknown futures.
New Year’s resolutions may be for the young and hopeful of heart, but whether we make any promises to ourselves and to others to create a change, to make improvements, we should do our best to not focus too much on the cliché and standard ideas of perfection.
We are, in a sense, perfect just the way we are. Becoming richer or skinnier may be for our better selves, but to make these our aims for the new year should only be done in the correct spirit that what goes up must come down. And that just like the new year and the rising and setting of the sun, everything in this world will come and go and nothing is permanent.
So with that in mind, understand yourself as best you can, make your ambitions accordingly and prepare for the inevitable setbacks and failures along the way. Not in a pessimistic view for the future, but in a Stoic and realistic acceptance of the way of the world. Of the Taoist - yin and yang - philosophy, that there must be light for there to be dark and there must be a beginning for there to be an end and there must be an end to have a new beginning.
As you begin this new year, make a commitment to a better you, by understanding the current you and not who you think you should be. If you ever need a hand, bipolar philosophy is here to help.
Happy New Year.