Why It’s Not Really A New Year

Billions of people still celebrate an ‘old’ new year

A solar eclipse viewed through a skull X-ray, in Jaffna

Happy New Year, but for me it’s not really new year.

In Sri Lanka — like China and much of India and many countries — we still observe a cultural calendar based on the sun and moon — even though our phones update like everyone else.

The story behind these multiple new years is a fascinating one that goes back to the sun, the moon, and some frustrated Roman administrators.

A Brief History Of The New Year

What we celebrate on January 1st is really some unique calendar hacking by the Romans.

The original 10 month lunar Roman calendar

The early Roman calendar was based on the moon, which is convenient, because it’s there. They had a year of 10 months (X) and the first month was March, when ancient Mesopotamians celebrated the New Year. So far everything sorta syncs, and ten months obviously works nicely with Roman numerals.

The problem with a lunar based calendar is that the moon has no connection to the sun. One is a rock over here and the other is a ball of gas over there. If you add up lunar cycles there’s no logic that gives you a solar cycle.

This early lunar calendar was about 304 days, which as we know is over 60 days short. Over time this means that seasons would lose all meaning, which was bad.

To fix this, the Romans introduced two new months — January and February. The debate here, however, was whether these months were at the beginning or the end of the year. Ovid said that they were the first months, but it’s quite possible that Roman priests continued observing the usual rituals in March.

One fun leftover in the modern day is you can see that some of our month names no longer make sense. Septem means seven, octo means eight, novem is ten, and decem means ten. However, September is the ninth month, and so on.

This hack, however, still had a problem. 12 lunar cycles is closer to one solar cycle than 10, but again, the two phenomena are uncorrellated. It’s still an approximation, one that loses about eleven days per year.

The administrative solution was to manually add days when you needed them, but this was done by humans who would also use it to delay elections or other political chicanery and this fast became untenable.

After Julius Caeser was done subduing Asterix or whatever he was like ‘fuck this’ and he brought in a committee. This committee proposed a solar based calendar, one 365.25 days long with a leap year every four years. This resulted in 67 days being added to that particular year, but it would keep good time for centuries going forward.

As you can see, the calendar is now completely divorced from the moon and even its connection to the sun is arbitrary. What this began was the evolution of the calendar into something more administrative than astrological.

At this point the Roman Senate set January 1st as the start of the administrative year, when consuls took their seats. This is basically our modern calendar, but not quite.

The Julian system was still a hack, and the calendar was gaining 11 minutes per year (3 days every 400 years). This was much better than before, but around the 16th century the contraditions became unbearable. Thus in 1582 Pope Gregory made a final correction by eliminating three leap days every 400 years. Which basically solved the problem and is where we’re at now.

The Power Of The Stars

So that’s why your phone ticks over, but that doesn’t mean human hearts have changed so much. For many cultures the connection to ancient astrology and the stars is still quite strong and they preserve and observe parallel calendars — especially when it comes to the new year.

In China what people celebrate is the Lunar New Year, the first new moon — a physical, celestial event. This year that’ll be on February 16th and tens of millions of Chinese will travel back home to be with their families, a migration governed by the moon.

In Sri Lanka and much of India and Southeast Asia we’re closer to the Mesopotamian and old Roman calendar. These places have a new year around March or April. In Sri Lanka it’s based on the transit of the sun between astrological houses, from Pisces into Aries, usually around April 14th.

In the West the New Year is divorced from this, but you can still feel the Babylonian presence in the Zodiac that still influences many peoples mating lives.

While the calendar has become an administrative thing, we are not administrative creatures.

The Power Of The Old New Year

What I can say is that the experience of celebrating the old new year is very different from the new new year.

The modern New Year is a somewhat abstract thing which you can celebrate by drinking and watching a clock. It’s over in literally a minute. The old new year usually stretches over at least a week, and often involves physically moving, practicing a bunch of odd rituals, and being conscious of the heavens above.

In Sri Lanka everything shuts down as most (Sinhala and Tamil) people go back to their ancestral homes. Once there, they follow an astrological schedule for everything from bathing to lighting a fire to eating, only leaving the house when the Sun is safe in its new house.

Obviously all Sri Lankans don’t follow all of these customs, perhaps a minority does, but you can’t help but notice that the entire country shuts down. There’s something much deeper going on than a calendar change.

What’s happening is anancient festival which dates back to the very idea of a date — to the Mesopotamians and Marduk, through the Romans, and transmitted across the world. That’s the old new year, which much of the world celebrates still.

So Happy New Year to you early birds. I’ll see you again in April.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. indi@indi.ca. Videos: tiny.cc/indication and podcast: anchor.fm/indication. patreon.com/indication

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store