Imagine a time when the world didn’t have a common calendar, when there was no official start of the year. The current date would have been an approximation based on local seasons and weather, or the movement of the stars.
As civilizations grew, there were many attempts across the millennia to create a universal calendar. The Aztecs, for instance, developed a calendar based on sophisticated calculations. It’s possible that if Aztecs had found a way to rule the world, we would all be following some form of the Aztec calendar today.
Instead, the Romans found a way to rule the world, so the calendar we mostly follow today stems from the Romans.
The earliest Roman calendars, created sometime around 300 BC, attempted to follow lunar cycles. Unfortunately, lunar cycles are variable and not a stable tool for tracking dates.
Then in 45 BC, Julius Caesar commanded that the calendar be revised and a new, more stable version be created to serve a widening empire that needed more consistent measures of time. An astronomer named Sosigenes advised Caesar to eliminate the lunar calendar, and start using a solar calendar instead.
In the pre-Julian (before Julius Caesar) calendar, March was considered the first month of the year, coinciding with the lunar equinox.
In the new calendar, the Julian calendar, January was chosen as the month for the New Year. The name of the month, January, might have stemmed from the Goddess, Juno, often associated with cyclical renewal and the waning and waxing of the moon. But it’s more commonly accepted that the name stems from Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions. Janus is often depicted as a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past, an appropriate choice for the transition between the old year and the new.
The Romans believed Janus could forgive them for their wrongdoings in the previous year. They would then make promises, believing Janus would see this and bless them in the year ahead. Those promises are the origin of our New Year’s Resolutions today.