January is named for the Roman god Janus, an all-powerful deity who controlled not only beginnings and endings, bridges and doors, but time itself. With two faces, one on each side of his head, he possessed the power of foresight and memory. It was Janus who brought in the hope and promise of a new year. We wish you a happy one!
The Silently Gliding Year
Why does the New Year start in the middle of winter? This is a question for Janus, the most important god in the Roman pantheon, after whom January is named.
Janus was a purely Roman creation with no exact parallel in Greek religion. He presided over all the other gods, guarding the gate between heaven and earth, a role that symbolized his status as the god of beginnings and endings, of openings and closings, the god of bridges, gates, and the turning of the year.
Not all pantheistic religions reserved a spot for a guardian of time. It made sense for the Romans, though, given their quest for empire and control. It was the Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E. - 44 B.C.E.) who first implemented what became known as the Julian calendar in 45 B.C.E. and named the first month for Janus, a god with faces on opposite sides of his head, allowing him to see into the past and the future, the only god who could do so.
The Julian calendar was developed with the help of astronomers in an attempt at accuracy. This was useful for bureaucratic purposes, but Julius Caesar knew the calendar would be used as a weapon of the Roman Empire. While the conquering Romans were known for allowing their vanquished enemies to hold onto much of their own culture, they demanded all peoples within the Empire use the Julian calendar, yoking entire continents to Roman authority for centuries to come.
The poet Ovid (43 B.C.E. - 17/18 C.E.) wrote about Janus in the Fasti, or Roman Book of Days first published in 8 C.E. He introduces “Two-headed Janus,” as the “source of the silently gliding year.” In the poem, which became an important source for historians on Roman religion and holidays, Janus explains that he was originally known as Chaos, “a shapeless mass, a ball,” who formed himself into a god. “Even now,” Janus says, “a small sign of my once confused state / My front and back appear just the same.” He represented a god capable of turning chaos into order, blurred moments into time, and time into a calendar. Like the Roman Empire itself, he was a force for control.
In the Fasti, Ovid himself questions Janus about the timing of the New Year, asking, “Tell me why the new-year begins with cold / When it would be better started in the spring? / Then all’s in flower, then time renews its youth.” Many have asked the question since. Janus provides a simple answer: “Midwinter’s the first of the new sun, last of the old: / Phoebus and the year have the same inception.” By Phoebus, Ovid meant The Sun. January is the birthday of the solar year and December is its end.
Julius Caesar was assassinated a year after his calendar was implemented. After his death the month Quintilus was renamed July, in Caesar’s honor. Over the next few centuries the Julian calendar remained influential but increasingly inaccurate, due to an eleven-minute error in the original calculations. During this period of the early Middle Ages, many stopped celebrating the New Year because of its pagan (Roman) associations. But in 1582 the Roman Catholic Church played a role in reinstating the holiday when Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a newly-calculated Gregorian calendar, which corrected the Julian errors. From this point on the celebration of the church-sanctioned New Year’s Day became a European tradition.
The Romans’ understanding of the world allowed for omens: signs of future events, good and bad. With this in mind their New Year’s celebrations focused on friends, family, and good cheer, in an attempt to make their first day of the year an omen for a happy and prosperous year to come. In the Fastia, Janus explains why his subjects brought him offerings of sweet treats of dates, dried figs, and honey. “For the omen,” he says, “so that events match the savor / So the course of the year might be sweet as its start.”
This year, as we exit 2020 and enter 2021, all of us at Trace wish you the same sweetness.
Dates and, in turn, calendars play a valuable role in genealogical research. Anyone that can trace their ancestry back into the 18th century needs to have an understanding of the Julian calendar.
The Julian calendar was utilized in England and, therefore, the American Colonies until 1752, when we changed to the Gregorian Calendar. The change was implemented due to the fact that the Julian calendar was overcompensating for the actual solar year. However, it was first realized there was an issue in the Middle Ages, when seasonal equinoxes were falling 10 days too early and some church holidays were also not falling at the appropriate times. By 1582, most Roman Catholic countries, as decreed by Pope Gregory XII, had adopted the Gregorian calendar which, among other things, established January 1st as the first day of the year with a leap year occurring every four years This created an issue, as most Protestant countries, including England and its American colonies, did not recognize the authority of the Pope and continued utilizing the Julian calendar.
During the time period between 1582 and 1752, not only were two separate calendars in use in European countries, and their territories, but there were two different starts to the year in England and the American colonies. The “legal” year began on March 25th, as indicated by the Julian calendar, while the use of the Gregorian calendar used by other European countries led to New Year’s Day being celebrated as the first day of the new year, as well as it being identified as the first day of the year in almanacs. A common practice of double dating occurred in England and the American colonies, whereas the dates from both calendars were recorded in documents for the time period of the Gregorian calendar new year of January 1st and the Julian calendar new year of March 25th. These dates are most commonly shown by a slash mark [“/”] between the years, for example 2 February 1701/2. This practice was most commonly used in civil records and can be confusing to modern-day family historians, as depending upon the date of the event, it could appear that someone died before they were born or possibly died before they were married.
In 1752, England and its colonies fully transitioned from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, in accordance with an 1750 act of England’s Parliament. The difference between a solar year and the Julian calendar had grown by an additional day, so the new calendar in use by England was “off” by 11 days from the Gregorian which was being utilized in most other European countries by this time. This required some modification to get into alignment with other countries. The changeover included the following steps:
31 December 1750 was followed by 1 January 1750 (under the old calendar, December was the 10th month and January the 11th);
24 March 1750 was followed by 25 March 1751 (under the old calendar, March 25th was the first day of the new year);
31 December 1751 was followed by 1 January 1752 (this was the switch from March 25th to January 1st as the first day of the new year);
2 September 1752 was followed by 14 September 1752 (this dropped the 11-day discrepancy and aligned with the Gregorian calendar used by the majority of European countries).
The calculations from Julian to Gregorian can prove to be quite cumbersome, but an automatic calculator that performs the date conversion for you is your best bet. As the adoption of the Gregorian calendar occurred on different dates throughout Europe, it is best to research the country of origin as to when they began using the new calendar. The date difference of many birth dates between those recorded in the European records versus the United States records created later can sometimes be explained by the calendar change.
Please also keep in mind that the Julian and Gregorian calendars were not the only ones utilized in European history. One must also be mindful of the French Revolutionary calendar when researching in France or areas that were under French rule, such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Egypt, Malta, Reunian, Louisiana, Guiana, Italy and some Caribbean islands. This calendar was utilized by the country and territories of France from 1793 - 1805, based on natural events of the seasons of a year and did not correspond with a Gregorian calendar. The implementation of the calendar included backdating to the autumnal equinox of the prior year, 1792. FamilySearch provides a useful chart for deciphering this complicated, though short-lived, calendar.
Identifying the calendar in use at a specific time and location can prove helpful in making sense of date discrepancies and solving the mysteries of those "time-hopping" ancestors!
Dictionary.com (https://www.dictionary.com/ : accessed 30 December 2020), “Where Does The Name “January” Come From?”
William Safire, The New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 30 December 2020), “Janus Lives.”
Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review (https://www.nybooks.com/ : accessed 30 December 2020), “Breaking Out.”
A. S. Kline, translator, Poetry in Motion (https://www.poetryintranslation.com/ : accessed 30 December 2020), “Ovid: Fasti, Book One.”
Connecticut State Library (https://ctstatelibrary.org/ : accessed 30 December 2020), “Colonial Records & Topics: 1752 Calendar Change.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Janus1.JPG : 30 December 2020), photo of original artwork “https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Janus1.JPG;” photograph uploaded by Loudon dodd.
Wikipedia (https://wikipedia.org), "French Republican calendar," rev. 20:54, 13 December 2020.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Almanacka 1753.jpg : 30 December 2020), photo of original artwork “https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Almanacka 1753.jpg;” photograph uploaded by Deryni.