It happened today - January 1, 2016

Hey everybody, January 1 is New Year’s Day. Wow, you say. You must be a genius to know that. How many years did you spend in school? No, no, bear with me for a sec here. Or rather, for just over 2000 years. Because I’m talking about the first time it happened, the great-great-granddaddy or the super-super-papa or however you’d say it in Latin. Because I’m talking about New Year’s Day falling on January 1 for the first time, in 45 B.C. Long live Julius Caesar.

Well, he didn’t. He only made it to the Ides of March in 44 B.C., and even the Ides of March kind of perished a while back too. But before getting “Et tu, Brute-ed”, the puzzling Roman dictator tried to tidy up the old Roman lunar calendar, which was all over the map and was even subjected to political manipulation by the authorities, who would fiddle dates to extend people’s terms of office or delay or speed up elections. Can you imagine?

Anyway Caesar, who I call puzzling because he had this enormous appetite for political power without much in the way of a clear agenda, went and asked a smart Greek person, the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes, what to do about the wandering seasons and all that. The poor Romans were tops at fighting but rather lived in the intellectual and cultural shade of the Greeks. And Sosigenes was a good choice, apparently, because he said try one of them Egyptian sun-based calendar things and J. Caesar did.

The upshot was a year 365.25 days long. Try writing that in Roman numerals. And Julius he stuffed an extra 67 days into 45 B.C., which had the effect of moving the new year from March to January 1. He even added the February leap year every four years, before renaming the month Quinitilis to Julius and getting assassinated.

It’s normally a bad sign when dictators start renaming bits of the calendar for themselves, their mothers etc. even if Quintilis was a dull name. (Of course when Julius’s great-nephew Augustus took over he had boring old Sextilis renamed for him, but by then people were resigned to the whole business.)

Now calculating the exact length of the year in CCCLXVs is no easy task, and as it turned out they got it very slightly wrong. It’s actually CCCLXV.242199 days and while 11 minutes a year may not seem like much, it meant the calendar was out of sync by seven days by 1000, and 10 by the mid-15th century. And New Year’s Day wasn’t a big deal in the Middle Ages anyway because they were all hung up on religious festivals instead of a nice clean arbitrary calendar date commemorating nothing.

Come the Renaissance, Pope Gregory XIII had a Jesuit work out the problem using Arabic numerals and devise a fix under which we skip every leap year ending in 00 unless it is evenly divisible by 400 (but you knew that, right?). And then everyone was happy, except those who rioted because the Gregorian calendar reform also took 10 days out of 1582 to get things back on track and nobody wanted to die 10 days sooner, to say nothing of all the chores they’d been meaning to get to in that period, honest, I mean I was going to muck out the stable and scrape the soot off the pot, that’s exactly when…

Speaking of things we really were about to do, from then on we celebrated New Year’s Day on Jan. 1 by getting up late feeling mangy and solemnly pledging a series of personal reforms most of which were as dead as Julius Caesar by the Ides of March anyway.