Everyone knows that the new year starts on January the 1st, often a somewhat bleary day in a lot of households (including mine!) because of the celebrating the night before. But here’s a thing:
New Year’s day is wrong by about 10 days
As theEearth goes around the sun days get longer and shorter depending on where it is in its orbit about the Sun (and whether you’re in the Northern or Southern hemisphere). This happens because the Earth’s rotation axis is tilted by approximately 23 degrees.
As a result, when it’s winter (in the Northern hemisphere) any point on the Earth’s surface spends more time shadowed by the planet making the nights “longer.” While in summer, the point would spend more time in daylight and the nights are shorter. In the southern hemisphere the opposite is the case, which is why for example, Australians celebrate the New Year in searing temperatures wearing beach wear!
The summer solstice, when the nights are shortest (in the northern hemisphere) falls around June 20th (which is correspondingly the winter solstice in the south). So, what about the winter solstice? It falls around December 21, 10 days before New Year’s Day!
Has someone stuffed up the calendar, or is the solstice wrong? Or did aliens change earth’s orbit to make it a better place to colonize?
In many early cultures, the changing of the seasons was more important than it is now because of the need to plant crops and follow patterns of wildlife movement. So the calendar was crucial to their lives, and people made use of the solstices as a means to stay in step with the seasons. This is why so many ancient monuments are aligned with the sun, and why the time the new year started was so important – it marked the beginning of a new cycle of regeneration and growth.
The problem was that it wasn’t easy to determine the shortest day/longest night marking the changes, so they could be a day or so off here and there. But evidence shows that centuries of observing the skies paid off, and for the most part they were pretty close.
Later, humans invented calendars to help with this important task and track the days closely. This was a big step up, because it meant you could keep track of the changing seasons even if you couldn’t observe the sky closely for some reason (like cloud). In fact the earliest known calendar is one that has been found in northern Scotland and was created around 10,000 years ago!
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. We now know that there are 365.24 days in a year, so there was bound to be some drifting. Though it should only amount to a day here and there, so how did we end up being 10 days out?
For that we need to thank Julius Caesar
At the time Julius was emperor, he formalized the calendar to be used by Rome and all its settlements, which at the time spanned a large fraction of the known world. This became known as the Julian Calendar in his honor, was adopted by the Christian church and spread throughout Europe and its various dominions.
Unfortunately, the Julian calendar had a big flaw – it too did not take into account the leap year correctly and implemented a “leap” every three years. This led to the calendar getting increasingly out of time with the seasons and astronomical observances. Especially important to Catholics was the observation of Easter, which by the time Pope Gregory came to lead the church had drifted significantly because of the mis-calculation of the leap year.
As a result, in 1582, Gregory introduced a modified calendar that corrected the discrepancy and made other adjustments to ensure that it would stay in step with the solar year. Unfortunately by this point the difference was about 10 days, resulting in a rather big shift in the start of the year and was introduced to much protest as people believed they were losing 10 days from their lives!
Although Gregory had no direct power to enforce the new calendar, the influence of the Vatican at the time was so great that most countries followed suit in the following years until now we have the situation where the calendar and the solstice are so far apart.
Interestingly, Christmas is closer to the solstice and start of the new solar year than the calendar “New Year”. This is because the holiday derives from the older mid-winter festivals of the pagans and was co-opted by the Christians when they conquered pagan held lands. This is also why there are more than 40 “holidays” and festivals in the period from mid-December to mid-January most of which were initially inspired by the winter solstice!
So, whatever reason you have to celebrate, enjoy it, and I wish you all the best for the new solar (and calendar) year!