Human World

Why does the New Year begin on January 1?

New Year: New Year's Eve fireworks display with a crowd watching.
Happy New Year! Image via Mo Eid/ Pexels. Used with permission.

Our celebration of New Year’s Day on January 1 is a human-made creation. It’s not precisely fixed by any natural or seasonal marker. It’s a civil event, not one defined by nature. Yet, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere – where daylight recently ebbed to its lowest point and the days are starting to get longer again – there’s a feeling of rebirth in the air. New Year’s resolutions, anyone?

The 2024 lunar calendars are here! Best New Year’s gifts in the universe! Check ’em out here.

So where does the New Year’s Day concept come from?

It stems from an ancient Roman custom, the feast of the Roman god Janus. He was the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings. This is also where the name for the month of January comes from, since Janus was depicted as having two opposite faces. One face looked back into the past, and the other peered forward to the future.

Likewise, on January 1, we look back at the year that just ended and forward to the new year ahead.

To celebrate the new year, the Romans also made promises to Janus. The tradition of New Year’s resolutions stems from this ancient custom. On January 1, as the year began, it was customary to exchange cheerful words of good wishes. Shortly afterwards, on January 9, the rex sacrorum – a priesthood associated with the Roman Senate – offered the sacrifice of a ram to Janus.

Learn more about Janus.

Today, although many do celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, some cultures and religions have different new year dates.

Side view of carved bust with 2 classical Roman faces back to back, one young, the other old.
The ancient Roman god Janus. Image via Marie-Lan Nguyen/ Wikimedia Commons.

Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish New Year

For example, Jews use a lunar calendar and celebrate the New Year in the fall on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the month of Tishri, which is the seventh month of the Jewish year. This date usually occurs in September, as it did in 2023. Similar to other cultures’ New Year’s Day, the two-day holiday is both a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life and looking ahead.

Learn more about Rosh Hashanah.

Braided loaf of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds on a platter.
Challah, a traditional Jewish bread, eaten for Rosh Hashanah. Image via Aviv Hod/ Wikimedia Commons.

Lunar New Year

There is also the famous Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, celebrated for weeks in January or early February. The Lunar New Year is the most important of Chinese holidays. Countries in Southeast Asia celebrate it including China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It’s also celebrated in Chinatowns and Asian homes around the world, where it’s considered a time to honor deities and ancestors and to be with family. The event always sparks a rush of travel that the New York Times has called the world’s largest annual human migration.

Last year’s Lunar New Year celebrations fell on Saturday, January 22, 2023. It was the year of the Rabbit. In 2024, the Lunar New Year will begin on Saturday, February 10, 2024. It’ll be the year of the Dragon.

Learn more about the Lunar New Year.

Two large Chinese characters in deep blue on red background.
Our friend Matthew Chin in Hong Kong created this graphic and wrote: “The two Chinese characters are the same. It means ‘blessing,’ a hope that other people will get good luck. It is commonly used during Lunar New Year. The red background is also a kind of ‘good’ as Chinese people use red to represent ‘good luck.’” Thank you, Matthew!

Perihelion around January 1

By the way, in addition to the longer days here in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s another astronomical occurrence around January 1 each year that’s also related to Earth’s year, as defined by our orbit around the sun. That is, Earth’s perihelion – or closest point to the sun – happens every year in early January. In 2024, perihelion comes on January 2-3.

Read more about 2024’s perihelion

Diagram: A diagram of an ellipse representing the Earth’s elliptical orbit. The equinox and solstice positions are marked along the orbit, as are the aphelion and perihelion positions. The ellipse is divided into 4 quadrants to show when the seasons occur during Earth’s orbit around the sun.
For 2024, the Northern Hemisphere winter stretches from December 21-22, 2023, to March 19-20, 2024. Perihelion occurs within this period, on January 2-3, 2024. Since Earth moves faster the closer it is to the sun, the Northern Hemisphere winter period is shorter by almost 5 days compared to the Northern Hemisphere summer when the Earth is moving more slowly in its orbit. Chart via EarthSky.

History of New Year’s Day

January 1 hasn’t always been New Year’s Day.

In the past, some New Year’s celebrations took place at an equinox, a day when the sun is above Earth’s equator and night and day are equal in length. In many cultures, the March or vernal equinox marks a time of transition and new beginnings, and so cultural celebrations of a new year were natural for that equinox.

The September or autumnal equinox also had its proponents for the beginning of a new year. For example, the French Republican calendar – implemented during the French Revolution and used for about 12 years from late 1793 to 1805 – started its year at the September equinox.

The Greeks celebrated the new year on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Happy 2024, everyone!

Bottom line: We celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1 by tradition. Our modern New Year’s Day celebration stems from the ancient two-faced Roman god Janus, after whom the month of January is named.

December 29, 2023
Human World

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