As an image of an Aztec calendar stone suggests, calendars have been with humankind for a very long time. But did you know that celebrating the new year on the 1st January is a relatively new phenomenon? The earliest recording of new year celebration is believed to be from Mesopotamia, ca. 2000 BC, but in those days the new year still occurred around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. A variety of other dates that are tied to the seasons and the astrological calendar were also used by various other ancient cultures. For the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians the new year began with the autumn equinox, and for the Greeks on the day of the winter solstice.
January originally owed its name to the Janus, the God of gates, doors and beginnings, who had two faces, one looking forwards and the other one back. The first month of our year to this day takes its name from this deity. This confirms that our New Year’s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions, as all other festivities of the Christian calendar undoubtedly always have been. The custom among the 7th century pagans of Flanders and the Netherlands was to exchange gifts on New Year’s day. This was a pagan custom deplored by Saint Eligius, who died about 660. He warned the Flemings and Dutchmen: ‘Do not make vetulas, little figures of the Old Woman, little deer or iotticos or set tables for the house-elf at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks, another Yule custom.’ The quote is from ‘the Vita of Eligius’ that was written by his companion, Ouen.
In 1582, on the instructions of a Pope by the name of Gregory the Roman calendar was adjusted and as a result most Western nations began to celebrate the start of each new year on the first day of January. This new calendar became known as the ‘Gregorian calendar.’ Most countries in Western Europe officially adopted the 1st January as New Year’s Day somewhat before they accepted the Gregorian calendar. England and the American colonies continued to celebrate the new year on the date of the spring equinox in March. It was not until 1752 that they too finally adopted the Gregorian calendar.
Have you ever wondered how the months of the year got their names and would you be surprised to find out that January has not always been the first month of the year? The ancient Romans used a different and more natural, i.e. cosmically aligned calendar system. Their year began in March and ended in February. Even though our modern system is quite different from that of the ancient Romans, they gave us something very important and that is a name for each month of the year. This is how they went about it:
March: In ancient Rome all warfaring ceased during the time of the celebration between the old and new year. When the Sun enters into Aries on the day of the spring equinox, astrologically this is the point of all beginnings that signals the rebirth of all life. In keeping with this, March was the first month of each new year in ancient Rome. Some believe that it was named March after Mars, the planetary ruler of Aries and the Roman God of war. This to me makes a great deal of sense.
April: Three theories exist regarding the origin of April’s name. The first one is that it derived from the Latin word for ‘second’, April being the second month of the ancient calendar. The second one is that the name comes from ‘aperire,’ the Latin word for ‘to open,’ because during this spring month the buds of the plants, flowers and trees are opening. Still others think April could have been named after the goddess Aphrodite.
May: May takes its name from Maia, the Earth Goddess who embodied the concept of growth.
June: This month was a popular one for weddings. The Romans named it after Juno, the queen of the Gods who is also the patroness of marriage and weddings.
July: In 44 BC July was named after Julius Caesar. Before that time it had been called ‘Quintilis,’ Latin for ‘fifth.’
August: Originally this month had been called ‘Sextillia,’ Latin for ‘sixth.’ During the biggest part of this month the Sun moves through Leo, whose planetary ruler is the Sun. Considering himself to be an offspring of the Sun, Augustus Caesar in 8 BC decided this month should be called August, after him.
Although these days we think of September, October, November and December as months 9, 10, 11 and 12, in the ancient Roman calendar they were 7, 8, 9 and 10. And that is how they got their names.
September: September comes from septem, Latin for ‘seven.’
October: October comes from octo, Latin for ‘eight.’
November: November comes from novem, Latin for ‘nine.’
December: December come from decem, Latin for ‘ten.’
February: Around 690 B.C., Numa Pompilius 753–673 BC and reigned 715–673 BC. He was the legendary second king of Rome who succeeded Romulus. This ruler turned a period of celebration at the end of the year into one that lasted a whole month and named it after the festival Februa. This is how February got its name.
January: Later, Pompilius added another month to the beginning of the year and called it January after Janus, the God of beginnings and endings, mentioned earlier.
• Three videos about the origins of the religions of our world:
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