The story* of the New Year is a Solar festival because it marks a complete orbit of the Earth around the sun. As an Evolutionary Astrologer, this is of interest to me; it’s the way we mark chronological time, and that is meaningful. Every new year we all start to think about getting a bit older, and about what we did or didn’t manage to do in the year just past, and we tend to make resolutions for the year ahead. Marking the turning of the year is of psychological benefit to us as individuals and as communities. We’ve actually been celebrating the new year since ancient times as far back as Babylon, but I puzzle over the confusion in the modern calendar. Why is the new year Jan 1st? Or more precisely why is it where it is in the cycle of the seasons?
*I use the term story because what drives most of us to celebrate new years eve, is much like the same story playing out every year, including the need for some to get drunk and have a good time as much as possible.
I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that different cultures celebrate the new year at different times. In India, the new year can be celebrated on different days from province to province depending on whether they use a solar or lunar calendar. The Telugu people, for example, use a lunisolar calendar, which means the new year falls on a different day each year. The Chinese also celebrate a lunar new year and it is determined by the first new moon between Jan 21st and Feb 20th. In ancient Rome for a time, the new year corresponded with the vernal equinox. This makes sense astrologically because it marks when the Sun moves into Aires, the first sign of the zodiac, and it also coincides with spring. The ancient Celts celebrated the new year on Samhain (All hallows eve) around Oct 31st a time for honouring ancestors.
The Gregorian calendar we use today is a hodge-podge affair, for example September which literally means ‘the seventh month’ is currently the 9th month. Why is this?
Originally the Roman calendar had only 10 months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Four of the months were named after deities - Mars for March, Aphrodite for April, Maius (goddess of the spring) for May, and Juno for June, followed by the rest, simply attributed the numbers 5-10.
It was Julius Caesar (a dictator) who mucked up any semblance of sense by first adding January and February around 45BC; January after the god of gates and doorways called Janus, and February literally means ‘pertaining to purification’ connected to the festival of purification held on Feb 15th. Then to make things even more confusing, he renamed quintilis (the 5th month) July in honour of himself, and later Augustus Caesar followed suit and took the 6th month for himself and renamed it August.
So why does the new year happen when it does? Simply because January is named after Janus the god of doorways, depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and one looking back i.e. marking the threshold between the past and the future. Essentially the hubris of a Roman dictator turned the new year into a civil event, that could as easily been placed on any day of the year. Is there more to it than this? Probably - by moving the new year to the 1st of January, it placed this important threshold in the heart of Capricorn, ruled by Saturn, and this symbolic change would encourage culture to become more secular and materialistic.
My proposal? Wouldn’t we feel much better if our festivals were deeply rooted in meaning, and celebrated at times in the year that actually make sense? I posit that in a subtle way the current confusion in the way many mindlessly celebrate Christmas and New Year, contributes to an emerging existential crisis on an epic scale. In general, I observe an overall emptiness in our collective rituals; we keep on doing them but don’t have a clear grasp of why. Rituals are important to humanity; they help us come together in a peaceful and coherent manner, but our rituals have to serve community wellbeing and as such, they need to be relevant to the human spirit and meaningful to all of us at an individual as well as collective level. At the moment one could argue that we are overly passive and have allowed our ritual practice to be co-opted by corporate powers (especially Christmas). Isn't it time we reclaimed our sacred practices and reinvigorated them with relevance and purpose suited to the current times?