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Derek Coleman: New year means a new start

Jan. 11, 2013 @ 10:06 AM

Christmas is over and it’s a new year. For America, 2013 started as usual with the ball dropping in New York City at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. Of course, the ball dropping is a fairly modern phenomenon, the first occasion happening only in 1907, but how many of you realize that New Years has not always been on the same date and has only been celebrated on Jan. 1 for a comparatively short time?

For thousands of years, men have found a need to keep track of the seasons for agricultural, religious and ceremonial reasons. Even the Mayans had a calendar, as we all heard last year, and it was in the first century before the birth of Christ that Rome adopted the calendar devised by a Greek astronomer and mathematician named Sosigenes. This was in 45 B.C., the time of Julius Caesar, and the calendar became known as the Julian calendar. It was a good attempt for the time and was widely used throughout Europe. It was based on the solar year, used 12 months and had three, 365-day years followed by a 366-day one, much like the calendar we use today. It also used Jan. 1 as the start of the new year instead of March 1, which had been used previously.

Five hundred years later, Rome fell and people began adapting the calendar. For a time, the new year was celebrated on Dec. 25 in some places, but by the ninth century CE, most of Europe accepted it as Annunciation Day, which was on March 25. England, ever wary of change, pondered this for a time, but within a couple of hundred years they, too, accepted the new date.

Beginning the calendar year in March explains the names of some of the later months in the year. September in Latin means seventh month, while October is eighth, November is ninth and December tenth; these only make sense if  February finished the year and March started it.

This system would have been fine if it were not for the small fact that Sosigenes’ calculations were a little out. In fact, because he got the math wrong, there was an extra day every 128 years. This was not noticeable at first, but some 1,600 years after the Julian calendar was adopted, it was 10 days out. Summer and winter equinoxes were noticeably incorrect, Easter was on the wrong date and the seasons were awry.

At the time Pope Gregory XIII ruled in Rome and he ordered the adoption of a new calendar, called the Gregorian Calendar. The 10 days that the old calendar was out were dropped, the Church decreed that Jan. 1 would be the first day of the year and leap years would only occur in century years divisible by 400, all of which would correct the anomaly. Coming from Rome, the new system was adopted by most Catholic countries while Protestant ones, such as England and her colonies, stuck to the old Julian calendar.

For the next 170 years, there were two calendars in use in Europe and simply by going from one country to another people could lose or gain 10 days, depending on their direction of travel.

Of course, this situation could not last. By the time the stubborn British decided to adopt the more accurate calendar, they were 11 days out.

The change occurred in 1752, a strange year for English speakers because eventually, it only lasted for 281 days, beginning on March 25 and ending on Dec. 31. There was no January or February. In addition to officially changing the date of new year there was a need to “gain” the 11 days difference between the two calendars, so the day after Sept. 2, 1752, was Sept. 14, 1752.

There were riots about this on the streets of London with people believing the government had robbed them of 11 days of their lives, and the colonies were affected, too. A certain Virginian, George Washington, for instance, should have celebrated his 21st birthday in February 1752 but there was not a February that year in the Gregorian calendar, so his birthday came in 1753.

Not all cultures comply with our method of counting the days, even today. Chinese New Year is not for another month or so, but whatever calendar you use New Year is New Year, we celebrate it as a time to start over, a new beginning and I pray that 2013 is a great year for all of us.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.