contributor perspectives

Dec 31, 2017 | 14:03 GMT

9 mins read

The Calendar That Conquered the Globe

Board of Contributors
Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
Nothing speaks more strongly of the triumph of Western soft power in the past 200 years than the globalization of Jan. 1.
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As another year draws to a close, journalists and pundits everywhere are making lists of the biggest events, trends and surprises of the past 12 months and making predictions of what the coming 12 will bring. But as tempting as it is to use my final Stratfor column of 2017 to add to the summings-up and prognostications, instead of offering an end-of-year review, I want to offer a review of the ends of years. After all, there's nothing inevitable about our custom of closing the year on Dec. 31, so why do we do it? Why will roughly two-thirds of the world's population start a new year on Jan. 1 rather than some other date? The answer is of more than antiquarian interest, because a review of the ends of years puts the day-to-day crises that tend to fill end-of-year reviews into the long-term perspective we sorely need.

At the Turn of the Political Tides

Our ancestors must have been aware of the cycle of seasons even before they evolved into modern humans about 300,000 years ago. However, the first concrete evidence of such awareness — the alignment of the great Irish tomb of Newgrange toward the winter solstice sunrise — dates back only 5,000 years. (Some archaeologists think the 17,000-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux in France include a star chart, but most are skeptical of that claim.) The first proper calendar wasn't produced until about 2000 B.C. in the city of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq. It began the year on March 21, the spring equinox, and most other early calendars followed suit by starting from similar astronomical events. By contrast, Jan. 1 — the date the Romans chose as their New Year's Day — has absolutely no celestial significance.

Instead, the Romans chose Jan. 1 for entirely political reasons. According to legend, Romulus, who founded the city in 753 B.C., gave it a 10-month calendar and put New Year's Day on the first of Martius, the month of the war god Mars. Most European languages use versions of the Roman month names: The English "March" comes from Martius, and September, October, November and December are named after the last four months in the Roman calendar. (In Latin, septem, octo, novem and decem mean the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th months.)

Of course, the 10-month calendar was a terrible fit for the Earth's actual 365.256-day orbit around the sun, calling for constant adjustments to keep the calendar roughly in line with the seasons. So reformers eventually tacked two more months (January, named after the god Janus, and February, the month of the Februa festival) on to its end, after December. The new arrangement worked much better, but because each year's newly elected consuls now took office on Jan. 1, the date inevitably came to be more important to the political elite than the official New Year's Day of March 1. At some point — possibly by 153 B.C., and definitely by 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar — Romans bowed to the inevitable and made Jan. 1 into New Year's Day.

Rome's legions carried this calendar everywhere from Scotland to Iraq, even though the overwhelming power of emperors made the annual election of consuls irrelevant in the first century A.D. But by then people were used to starting a new year on Jan. 1, so the date stuck, and when emperors turned Christian in the fourth century, Jan. 1 (which happened to be the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ) remained a plausible New Year's Day.

As the western empire fell apart and Rome's aura faded, the fact that the Circumcision was a relatively minor festival increasingly made bishops feel that Jan. 1 was a peculiar New Year's Day. At the Second Council of Tours in 567 they canceled it, whereupon some Christians began starting their year on Christmas Day and others opted for March 25, the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus. The bishops tried to clarify matters at the Third Council of Tours in 755 by making Easter Sunday New Year's Day, but since Easter is a movable feast (falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox on March 21, which can be anywhere between March 22 and April 25), that solution didn't help much.

Given the ramshackle nature of most European governments in the eighth century, it may not have mattered that using Easter as New Year's Day meant that no year was ever the same length as the previous or subsequent one. But as states revived in the later Middle Ages and tax schedules, interest payments and government budgeting grew more important, so did the appeal of a fixed and internationally accepted date for the start of each year. One European country after another returned to Jan. 1 as a neutral date for New Year's Day in the 16th century, and when Pope Gregory XIII unveiled his new Gregorian calendar in 1582 in an attempt to regularize the date of Easter, he took it for granted that the year should begin on Jan. 1. Some Protestant rulers remained suspicious of popish innovations, and Jan. 1 only replaced March 25 as the official New Year's Day in Britain and its North American colonies in 1752. But ordinary folk, especially those involved in trade, made the switch much earlier. (In his diary for 1661, English lawmaker and Naval Administrator Samuel Pepys was already using Dec. 31 as an opportunity to look back at the year's events.)

Yet even in Pepys' time, the only people on Earth who thought Jan. 1 was important were Catholic and Protestant Christians, barely 1 human in 7. Even Eastern Orthodox Christians began their year on either March 1 or Sept. 1. The Chinese year, calculated on a lunar calendar, began (and still begins) with the new moon occurring between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20. (The Year of the Dog will open on Feb. 16, 2018.) And the Islamic year, also based on the moon, was 11 to 12 days shorter than the Earth's orbits around the sun. This meant that each Muslim New Year's Day fell at a different point on the Gregorian calendar. For instance, the Islamic year 1438 began at midnight on Sept. 20, 2017, but 1439 will start at midnight on Sept. 11, 2018.

And They All Fall in Line

Since Pepys' day, however, Jan. 1 has conquered the world. Russia, the cradle of the Orthodox Church, shifted over to the date in 1700, and Serbia, then still a province of the Muslim Turkish empire, followed suit in 1804. The Turks themselves swapped the Islamic New Year's Day for Jan. 1 in 1840, although they carried on counting years from the Prophet Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622 until 1927. They then gradually shifted toward the Christian system, originally calculated by the Greek monk Dionysius the Humble in the sixth century, of numbering years since Christ's birth — even though almost every scholar agreed that Dionysius had gotten his arithmetic wrong, and Jesus was probably born in 7 B.C.

By 1927, much of the world had fallen in line. Japan adopted both Jan. 1 and anno Domini in 1873; Egypt followed in 1875, Thailand in 1889 and Korea in 1896. China went the same way in 1912, only to revert immediately to its traditional calendar. Chiang Kai-shek had a second go in 1928, again meeting massive resistance; and in 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the most extreme Maoists decided that even China's own New Year traditions were unacceptable. "Ancestor worship, New Year's greetings, visits to relatives, gift giving and feasts can all go to hell!" the People's Daily, a government mouthpiece, shrieked. "The working classes have never had such stinking customs; what we have is the power to uproot decadent capitalist influences and uphold Mao Zedong thought."

But this was a step too far. In 1979, with Mao safely dead, People's Daily published a letter titled "Why is there no Spring Festival vacation?" and the Communist Party began rolling back restrictions. The return of urban workers to their native villages for the Chinese New Year in late January or February now constitutes the largest annual migration in the world — 2.9 billion passenger journeys were logged in 2016 — but Jan. 1 has also become a hugely popular urban festival of fireworks and shopping. Until a tragedy in 2014, in which at least 36 people were crushed to death, about 300,000 revelers would congregate in Shanghai's Chen Yi Square every Dec. 31, outnumbering those who show up in New York's Times Square to watch the ball drop by more than 3 to 1.

Some two-thirds of humanity will treat this Dec. 31 as the end of the year, even if Saudis will have to celebrate indoors because the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice promises to arrest anyone partying in public and to confiscate any gifts they are carrying. In neighboring Dubai, however, the world's tallest building will host the world's most expensive fireworks display. Rome may have fallen 15 centuries ago, but its calendar has now conquered most of the globe.

Is Winter Coming for the West?

In 2009, the journalist Martin Jacques reported a conversation with a Malaysian lawyer who told him, "I am wearing your clothes, I speak your language, I watch your films, and today is whatever date it is because you say so." Nothing speaks more strongly of the triumph of Western soft power in the past 200 years than the globalization of Jan. 1. Some non-Europeans adopted the Roman New Year's Day because they had been conquered and colonized; others because they wanted to be seen as modern and Western; and most because it made it easier to join the interconnected global economy based around the North Atlantic. But whatever the motivation, the recent coup of Jan. 1 helps us put all of this year's ups and downs into a broader perspective. Despite the West's anxieties about the rising power of Russia, China and even North Korea, nothing in history has ever compared with its takeover of the world since the 18th century.

That said, when we set the trials and tribulations of 2017 into this long-term context, it's tough not to see much of the goings-on in Western Europe and the United States as signs that Western dominance is weakening. In my 2010 book, Why the West Rules — for Now, I made the slightly tongue-in-cheek calculation that if then-current trends were to continue, East Asia's development would catch up with the West's in the year 2103. Seven New Year's Days later, I can't help but feel that this date should be brought forward.

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University's Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. Dr. Morris' bestsellers include Why the West Rules -- for Now (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, released in 2015 by Princeton University Press. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University.

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