Why is January 1 the First Day of the Year?

  • Chabot at Large / Ben Burress / December 18, 2020

  • At Chabot, we celebrate the New Year with our annual Balloon Drop. Click the image to learn more.

    Happy New Year from all of us at Chabot! Most nations around the world celebrate a common New Year’s Day on January 1st, even those with different traditional dates for the starting day of their cultural new year.


    Why January 1?

    The answer dates back about 2000 years to the days of the Roman Empire. Originally, the Roman calendar had 10 months that contained 304 days, and began on the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring. The ancient Romans seem to have ignored the remaining 61 days, which all fell in the wintertime anyway, and weren’t that useful to agriculture and sport.

    Those ten months were named Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Those last six names literally mean the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months.


    Syncing with the Seasons

    Eventually, the Roman king Pompilius added January and February to the calendar, making it 355 days long. To make up for the ten-day shortage and keep the calendar in sync with the seasons, a short month, called Mercedinus, was added every two years, immediately following February—the same spot we tack on an extra day every four years, on leap year, to do the same thing.


    The New Julian Calendar

    The fragmented remains of the Fasti Praenestini of Verrius Flaccus, a Roman calendar from around the years 6-8 BCE.

    But the fix still wasn’t perfect, and over the centuries the year got out of sync with the seasons again. So, around 46 BC, Julius Caesar did something remarkable: he asked the scientists what to do!

    He consulted the best astronomers and mathematicians, which resulted in the new Julian calendar—as well as a name change for the month Quintilis, which became July, for Julius. Later on, Augustus Caesar made his own mark with a name change for Sextilis: August.

    Julius Caesar declared January 1 as the first day of the new Julian calendar year—an appropriate choice, since January is named for Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions, time, passages, and endings.