The ‘New Year’ begins in January for some, in March for others and May for the rest
January is named after the two faced Roman god Janus and December means the tenth but is actually the 12th month of the year. Jawhar Sircar delves into history and trivia to ring in the New Year
We know that as soon as the clock strikes midnight on the 31st of December, we step on a brand new year — with a bang and a lot of hope. But, strangely, we never stop to ask why do we celebrate this particular date and time? Why not, say, the first of March or the 25th of March or even on the 25th of December? This is, incidentally, not idle prattle, for all these dates have had the historic honour of actually being observed as ‘New Year’s Day’. Yes. So let’s get into the story of how we went past all these dates to arrive at the first of January.
Actually, the oldest record we have of any new year being sanctified comes from ancient Babylon in around 2000 BC. This new year was on the first new moon after the spring equinox, which was usually in the third week of March. This combined the absolute certainty of the solar calendar with a little flexibility of the popular lunar calendar. Later on, when their neighbours like the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, the Persians and even the Egyptians began to calculate their months and years as systematically, they seemed to prefer the autumn equinox (21st-22nd September) for their new year. The Greeks pushed their new year date still further, to winter solstice day, on or near the 21st of December. The Romans came next and introduced a year of ten months starting from the first of March, which had just 304 days. In 153 BC, the date of their new year was brought forward to the first of January. After all, Janus, the god after whom January is named, had two faces — one of which could look back to the year just gone by, while the other peered straight ahead towards the future.
Julius Caesar disrupted not only the traditional republican form of Rome’s government by establishing his absolutist ‘empire’, but he played havoc with the month names as well. He also introduced July after his own name as the seventh month of the year, while his nephew and successor, Augustus, promptly declared the next month as August, rather immodestly. Consequently, the remaining four months of the old Roman year, that were numbered seventh to tenth, were then jostled further down the line. September (Latin ‘septa’, as in our seven, sapta as in sapta-rishi) is considered to be the present ninth month — even though it still means seventh. Though October is based on eight (‘octo’ like our ashta), it was lobbed to the tenth position. In like manner, the old ninth month, November, which is based on navam, is now considered to be the eleventh month. This same ridiculous pattern continues when we call the month that stands for dasham (tenth), December, as our current twelfth one. Mercifully, Julius retained the first of January as the new year’s day in his new Julian calendar.
Though we still go by this sequence and call the months by the same names, the first day of the year has, however, been tossed around like a volleyball. In 567 AD, the Council of Tours of the Christians declared the Roman celebration of the first of January to be too pagan and mandated that the year should begin from the 25th of March — on the ‘Feast of the Annunciation’. This was close enough to spring equinox, which was usually on the 21st or 22nd of March, and near to Easter, as well. Some countries like England still insisted on celebrating Christmas as the first day of the new year, but they soon fell in line with the rest of Christian Europe and mooted for the 25th of March. Incidentally, much of Deccan India and even beyond observes a date quite close to this date as the first day of their year — on Chaitra Shukla Pratipada. This lunar calendar date often coincides with or comes close to spring equinox, but then, as we know, the solar and the lunar calendars go on their own separate trips. This new year is observed as Gudhi Padwa in Maharashtra and Goa; Ugadi in Andhra, Telengana and Karnataka; the Sindhis’ Cheti Chand; the Nowroz of Parsis, the Navreh of Kashmir and the Thapna of conservative Marwaris. In many parts of India, this time marked the end of the Rabi season when the crop was ready and certainly called for festivities. So, whatever be the name, joy was the moving spirit for celebrating new year and the rituals observed were, in reality, trysts that bound regional cultures with their past.
Returning to Europe, we find that once the medieval age was gone, the Roman Catholic Church restored new year’s day to the first of January. The Julian calendar had a very slight mismatch with the actual solar year and by the late sixteenth century, this accumulated into a stark ‘regression’ of 14 days’s difference between the two calendars. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII stepped in and introduced the more scientific Gregorian calendar, by adjusting the ‘excess’ number of days. Most European countries adopted this practice, but some dragged on. It was only five years before the Battle of Plassey (1757), that England switched over to the new Gregorian calendar and imposed it on its ever-expanding colonies on the Indian subcontinent, for official purposes. By the 19th century, however, the Gregorian calendar became almost completely universal.
Jews and Muslims have their own lunar calendars but the problem is that it is not easy to predict the exact days of their festivals on the Gregorian solar calendar. The two most popular Hindu calendars, the Vikrami Samvat that was established in 57 BC and the Saka Samvat of 78 AD combine lunar days and months with solar years. Incidentally, the government of India adopted the Saka calendar, with some adjustments, from the 22nd of March, 1957, as the nation’s official calendar — but this day is never observed with any fanfare. Since we mentioned the Ugadi series of regional new year celebrations in Chaitra, that almost half of India observes, we may, as well mention the other half (or a little less) for which new year begins from the first day of Baisakh (April-May). Prominent in this group are Baisakhi festival of Punjab, Rongali Bihu of Assam, Vishu of Kerala, Poila Boishakh of Bengal (and Bangladesh), Puthandu of Tamil Nadu, Pana Sankranti of Odisha and Jude Sheetal of Mithila in Bihar. Though regional new year celebrations are still quite popular and reinforce the community identity of its participants, there is no doubt that it is the Gregorian or ‘English’ calendar that is actually better known across India. Its new year on the first of January is thus more prominent and the English speaking classes have made it a point to herald the first of January with a lot of light and music, as in the West. They can, however, hardly match the glitz of the massive gatherings at Trafalgar Square in London or Times Square in New York city. The Covid 19 pandemic of this year has, of course, ensured that large crowds are a definite no-no.
This reminds us that the earliest recorded new year revellers of Babylon paraded their gods "through the city streets and enacted rites of how they had crushed the forces of chaos. Babylonians prayed for the eradication of evil on earth and sincerely believed that the world was symbolically cleansed at the end of the year by their sky-god Marduk who was victorious over the evil sea-goddess Tiamat. This take appears so utterly relevant to us — desperate as we are to bid goodbye to the most devastating year in our living memory, and to ring in deliverance in the new year.