All human life has its seasons and cycles, and no one’s personal chaos can be permanent. Winter, after all, gives way to spring and summer, though sometimes when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, and that summer, but they do, and always.
In the dark days of winter, a new year begins. But January wasn’t always the start of the new year. At the dawn of modern timekeeping, the winter months were a largely undefined period. It was the waiting time until new life would be ‘reborn’ and a new cycle (year) was about the start.
The early calendars followed nature’s path
Humans have been marking time on calendars for at least 10,000 years, but the methods they used varied from the start. The Mesolithic people of Britain tracked the phases of the moon. Ancient Egyptians looked to the sun. And the Chinese and Babylonians combined both methods into a lunisolar calendar.
But what most ancient calendars had in common was the strong reliance on natural events. The Ancient New Year was always around the time of Easter and is connected to the first Full Moon after the Equinoxe (21st March when day equals night). The Jewish culture calls it Passover (passing from one year to the next). It is the time when nature awakes and is ‘reborn’ into a new cycle.
The modern calendar used in most of the world, though, evolved during the Roman Republic. It was attributed to Romulus, Rome’s founder and first king. But in reality, the early Roman calendar developed from other dating systems designed by the Babylonians, Etruscans, and ancient Greeks.
As Romans’ scientific knowledge and social structures changed over time, so did their calendar. The Romans tweaked their official calendar several times from the republic’s founding in 509 B.C. until its dissolution in 27 B.C.
The first Roman Calendar counted 10 months and paid homage to what counted in early Roman society: agriculture and religious ritual. The 304-day calendar year began in March (Martius), named after the Roman god Mars. Traditionally the new year marked the start of the ‘marching season – where soldiers were sent to conquer new land – and ended in December, which was the end of the harvest time in temperate Rome, followed by an uncertain ‘winter period’ where people lived off the harvest and partied until the beginning of the new year.
The initial calendar included six 30-day months and four 31-day months. The first four months were named after gods like Juno (June); the last six were consecutively numbered in Latin, giving rise to month names such as September (the seventh month, named after the Latin word for seven, septem). When the harvest ended, so did the calendar; the winter months were simply unnamed.
Rome’s lunar calendar
The 10-month calendar didn’t last long, though. In the seventh century B.C., around the reign of Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, the calendar received a lunar makeover. The revision involved adding 50 days and borrowing a day from each of the 10 existing months to create two new, 28-day-long winter months: Ianuarius (honoring the god Janus) and Februarius (honoring Februa, a Roman purification festival).
The new calendar was anything but perfect. Since Romans believed odd numbers were auspicious, they attempted to divide the year into odd-numbered months; the only exception was February, which was at the end of the year and considered unlucky. There was another issue: The calendar relied on the moon, not the sun. Since the moon’s cycle is 29.5 days, the calendar regularly fell out of sync with the seasons it was intended to mark. In an attempt to clear up the confusion, Romans observed an extra month called ‘Mercedonius’, every two or three years. This was the beginning of the later regularly employed leap year. But it wasn’t applied consistently, and various rulers added to the confusion by renaming months.
“The situation was made worse because the calendar was not a publicly available document,”writes historian Robert A. Hatch. “It was guarded by the priests whose job it was to make it work and determine the dates of religious holidays, festivals, and the days when business could and could not be conducted.”
Following the sun and changing the yearly start date
Finally, in 45 B.C., Julius Ceasar demanded a reformed version that became known as the Julian calendar. He had spent some time in Egypt and was fascinated by the Egyptian sun model. It was not surprising that he relied on the Egyptian Sosigenes of Alexandria, an astronomer, and mathematician to design his new calendar. Sosigenes proposed a 365-day calendar with a leap year every four years. Though he had overestimated the length of the year by about 11 minutes, the calendar was now mostly in sync with the sun. He also changed the starting date from the variable Full Moon after the Equinox to January 1st, a rigid man-made date. Although easy to manage, the calendar lost the link to nature’s growing season and we have followed this blueprint ever since.
Aside from a few tweaks by other Roman rulers, the Julian calendar remained largely the same until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar to more accurately reflect the amount of time it takes for the Earth to travel around the sun. The old calendar had been 365.25 days long; the new calendar was 365.2425 days long. The new calendar also shifted the dates, which had drifted by about two weeks, back in sync with seasonal shifts and was named The Gregorian Calendar.
The first day of January, named after Janus, the god of time, transitions, and beginnings, was chosen as the new start of the year. The most persuasive reason why January 1 was chosen as the new start of the year was that on this date the new consuls, the republic’s executive branch, took office and it marked the start date of a new political regime. Now binding in Rome, it took a long time for this official start of the year to catch on with the wider population. They still celebrated the ‘start of the growing season’ in spring.
Primstave, the calendar of the Vikings
One calendar which is very interesting is the Viking Calendar, called Primstave. Its word comes from the Latin word ‘prima, meaning first’, and the Norwegian word ‘stav’ meaning stick. In Old Norse prim also meant New Moon. This calendar, like the Babylonian Calendar, followed the Metonic cycle, when the path of the sun and the moon align. The stick (literally a piece of wood with markings) had 2 sides, a summer and a winter side. Summer started on April 14 and winter on the 14th of October, just after the harvest. In the Scandinavian north, farmers had to be very economical with the sunlight and the summer season was full of activity and growing action. However, the winter stick was more of a time to relax during the dark winter months. Together with the date of Midwinter, the 14th of January – marking the coldest period of the year – these 3 dates were the official days for sacrifice and pagan festivals.
The start of the New Year was marked by the first Full Moon after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. From then onwards the year was counted in 7 days increments (just like our weeks – counting a quarter of a moon cycle). Because the Primstav followed the solar as well as the lunar year, its dates and seasons did not grow too much out of sync with the seasons. This enabled an orderly yearly rhythmic cycle, one that could be reused from the year before, and gave the Nordic people ‘certainty’ of what lay in store in the months ahead. The markings on the Primstav show when to celebrate rituals, the best times for planting and harvesting, and general life guidance and advice.
With the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, the Primstav and other Lunisolar Calendars slowly faded away, but unofficially it kept going well into the 19th century.
What can we learn from these natural calendars?
Since the 20th century, most of the world has now adopted the Gregorian Calendar, which purely follows the path of the sun. It is less connected to the natural world and we start to think about our lives in a linear fashion. It all starts with a beginning (birth) and an end (death). There is no connection left to the cyclic nature of life. Coming to think of it – everything is cyclic. The path of the earth around the sun (in fact all other planets rotate around the sun), provides the endlessly repeating cycle of day and night. The moon cycle (the moon rotating around the earth) or the Methonic cycle – a combination of both. Then there is nature’s cycle of growing, harvest, and rebirth. There is not one linear feature in nature. It beggars the question of why would we be the ‘only linear occurrence in nature’?
The lesson here is literally ‘What goes around comes around’. It is a very different way of thinking. If we thought we would come back in any shape or form, we surely would look much more after nature and its wildlife. We would treasure it and not deplete it as much as we do at the moment. We would seek harmony and not abuse. Let’s treat this planet with the respect it deserves by co-existing in harmony with all other creatures on this planet. And who knows where and when ‘our new cycle’ starts to emerge?
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