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By: Mark Roseman, Board Member
For: Red Rock News
Date: December 25, 2009

Hail Caesar: Happy New Year, 2010

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve represents a dramatic marking of time.  At the end of the week, one year ends and another one begins.  January 1 is mankind’s world wide agreement on something.  Imagine, on this diverse planet, all humanity agrees that 2009 begets 2010, and 2010 starts at the stroke of January 1.  It has been going on for centuries.   Time zones delay the process; however, within 24 hours of the striking of the New Year, the world will have flipped calendar pages, in harmony, leaving 2009 to history.

I began to wonder how January 1 became the date for annual change.  What worldwide timepiece, what calendar coordinates are responsible for the upcoming January 1 marking of 2010?  I used the Sedona Public Library’s research collection as my primary research tool to answer these questions.  SPL’s collection is comprised of shelves of books with facts and figures bursting out of their bindings.  In the Dewey 529 research series, there are two books that have information on the historical and contemporary calendaring systems.

In “The Book of Calendars,” edited by Frank Paris (Dewey 529.3), practical reasons for human beings to be aware of the passage of time are discussed.  While primitive people had no written calendar, seasonal changes, dry and wet periods, and blossoming of flowers were indicators that chunks of time felt and looked different at various times of the year. Calendars became more complex, reflecting the growth of populations, and the importance of agriculture to nourish people and the animals they consumed.  With the advancement of world cultures, it became vital to measure the passing of time, and to recycle the process, not only for agricultural reasons, but for business and governmental reasons, and so much more. 

Historically, how people divided time was based on factors such as astronomy, geography, religion, and a lot of superstition.  “A calendar may have dated from the birth of a religious leader as did the Zoroastrian, or from the ascension of the monarch as did the ancient Babylonian,” writes Frank Paris, and “It may have been based on the movement of the moon as was the ancient Hebrew calendar or that of the sun as is our present Gregorian calendar.”  In the past, it was not unusual that two or more calendars were used simultaneously in the world.  “Conquerors frequently imposed their calendars on subject people who continued to use their old means of time.” writes Paris.

The second research book on the subject of calendars in the SPL collection is “Religious Holidays and Calendars, An Encyclopedic Handbook,” 2nd Edition, (Dewey 529.3).  As the title suggests, the focus of this book is the strong religious impact on calendars throughout history.  “From the time of the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Mesoamerican civilizations, members of the religious community determined how time was to be divided, established the beginning of the day, defined the week, described a month, and announced the new year, writes Karen Bellenir, editor. 

Egyptians are credited with constructing the first practical calendar, which in turn influenced the Roman calendar.  The Romans celebrated the New Year in late March.   Many a Roman emperor tampered with the calendar, so much so that it lacked synchronization with the sun.   Julius Caesar put an end to the tampering when, in 153 BC, the Roman senate declared January 1 as the official beginning of the New Year.   The date was completely arbitrary and had no astronomical or agricultural significance.  Thereafter, the Julian calendar was used in the Western World for more than 1500 years.  A delicious piece of fact food in “The Book of Calendars” is that the Roman calendar Caesar inherited was so out of sync with the sun that he had to let 445 days drag on from the previous year in order to re-synchronize timing before starting the Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar was replaced by the current Gregorian calendar, which is associated with the moon’s waning and waxing phases and seasonal activity based on movement of the sun.  Another fun fact for your New Year’s celebration get-together:  The Julian calendar has one significant fault:  it is based on a year of 365.25 days long; however, the true solar year is 365.2422 days long.  This error of 11 minutes, 14 seconds per year amounts to three days every 400 years.  Consequently, we have leap years.

The New Year brings with it a universal and iconic tradition: the symbol of a baby to signify the start of the New Year.  This tradition began in Greece circa 600 BC.  At that time, the tradition was to parade a baby in a basket, as a metaphor of annual rebirth, in grateful surrender to the god of wine, Dionysus, and his imputed powers over human fertility. 

As 2010 marches towards us, and you hear Robert Burns old Scottish tune, “Auld Land Syne” (“old long ago”), remember that we have Julius Caesar to thank for our gatherings, our celebrations, and for celebrating the New Year on January 1.  Happy New Year from Sedona Public Library!

Mark Roseman
Mark Roseman, author of this week's article,
is a retired attorney and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Sedona Public Library.

Library News appears each Friday in the Red Rock News
and is also presented on: Gateway to Sedona and Sedona Biz.