Word Play – New year, old calendar


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, January 22nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

Have you ever wondered why we start the new year in January, instead of July? Turns out that quirk of the calendar has a lot to do with worldview. 

Here’s George Grant with this month’s Word Play.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: The month of January marks the start of a new year. But that has not always been so. For much of human history, the new year followed one or another of the astronomical cycles. The earliest record of a new year celebration was in Mesopotamia 2,000 years before the time of Christ. It commenced at the vernal equinox—the first day of spring. The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians all began their new year with the fall equinox, while the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice.

But January does not coincide with any astronomical cycle or event. The Romans held the festival of their two-faced god, Janus, on the first day of that month. And in 46 BC, Julius Caesar, a patron of the Janus temple, introduced a new calendar system and chose that day to mark the new year.

There are still at least 40 different calendar systems currently in use in the world. Some attempt to follow seasonal changes according to fixed rules. Others are based on abstract, perpetually repeating cycles of no astronomical significance. So, think of the Chinese New Year, celebrated in 2021 on February 12, or the Islamic New Year, celebrated on August 9 this year.

The common theme of each system is the desire to organize the calendar to satisfy the needs, priorities, and predilections of society. Besides simply serving the obvious practical purposes, this process of organization provides a sense, however illusory, of understanding and managing time itself. Thus, calendars have provided the basis for planning agricultural, hunting, and migration cycles, for divination and prognostication, and for marking religious and civil events.

Whatever their scientific sophistication, or lack thereof, calendars are essentially social covenants, not scientific measurements. Calendars are worldview projects.

The acceptance of the Gregorian calendar as a worldwide standard spanned more than three centuries. It was not adopted in the English-speaking world until the British Parliament finally relented in 1751—by which time there was an 11-day discrepancy in the old Julian calendar. Even so, its implementation was fraught with confusion, controversy and even violence, as crowds gathered in the streets demanding that those 11 days be given back to them.

It is hard to imagine singing Auld Lang Syne, at almost any other time than the end of December and the beginning of January. But, when Robert Burns edited and catalogued that old Ayrshire folk ballad for the Scots Musical Museum at the end of the 18th century, he noted that it had long been sung on the occasion of a new year—according to the old calendar, in the month of March.

It’s just one more reminder that ideas have consequences. Worldviews matter.  Now, as ever.

Happy New Year. I’m George Grant.


(Photo/iStock)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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