saturnaliaToday is January 1, New Year’s Day, the start of a brand new year. It wasn’t always thus. New Year’s Day was celebrated on January 1 for the first time in 45 B.C. On that day the Julian calendar went into effect — created by Julius Caesar himself — with the aid of his trusty sidekick Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer. Note that the calendar was not named the Sosigenian calendar — it’s good to be the dictator.

The calendar was in a real mess at the time. It did its best to follow the lunar cycle, but it fell out of sync with the seasons and had to be corrected. Then there was the Roman Calendar Commission, which frequently added or subtracted days for political reasons, an early kind of gerrymandering. And on top of it all, the years were going backwards toward zero.

Sosigenes advised Caesar to dump the whole Roman calendar and start from scratch. New Year’s no longer came in March (leaving that month with nothing to celebrate except the Ides). A one-time bonus of 67 days was thrown in, with the promise of an extra day every four years in February (more of a crowd-pleaser in Rome than in, say Stockholm.

Once he had started fiddling with the calendar, Caesar couldn’t stop. In 44 B.C. (that’s a year later than 45), he changed the month of Quintilis to Julius (July, to friends). He would no doubt have done more damage had not a group of noble Romans assassinated him that same year.

Several years later the calendar reached zero, and since the end of the world did not come despite many predictions, the following years moved back into positive territory. Unfortunately, the Julian calendar had this pesky little 11-minute-per-year error that seemed minor at first but which by the the mid-15th century had added up to ten days, forcing Pope Gregory to step into the breach and give the world the calendar we use today and the ability to accurately celebrate the new year, awaiting only Dick Clark and the ball atop Times Square.

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion. ~Mark Twain

January 1, 1995

Gary Larson’s wacky, surrealistic comic , The Far Side,debuted on January 1, 1980, and ran for 15 years in more than 1,900 daily newspapers. It has been translated into 17 languages, and collected into calendars and 23 best-selling books. The last panel appeared on January 1, 1995:

far-side-final

 Don’t be humble. You’re not that great. ~ Golda Meir

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