Janus Holds the Key

Janus - Who Is Janus

New Year’s Day is New Year’s Day for a reason, it turns out. Since my tenth birthday on a warm Fifth of Quintilis, in 1970, I’ve wondered why the year often starts smack dab in the middle of a blizzard.


First of all, ancient Romans had a God for everything. One of them held the key that unlocked that “passage” between what is and what is to come; or, metaphorically speaking, this particular God was the key master that opened the way for new things to occur.

His name was Janus. He’s also the God of doors, by the way. Makes sense.

The New Year used to begin in March, but in 46 BC, everyone’s favorite Caesar, Julius, decided the calendar needed reform. He was right, actually, as the Roman calendar already in place for six centuries followed the phases of the moon, and that totally screwed with people over time as the seasons seemed to “shift.” Worse, the politicians who oversaw the calendar kept adding or subtracting days to affect the length of terms one way or the other.

So JC met an astronomer named Sosigenes who convinced him to trash the lunar module and follow the Egyptians lead—they followed the sun. To balance it out, JC added sixty-seven days to 46 BC, which put the solar calendar on track, and the first New Year of the Julian (he earned it) calendar fell on the First of Janus’ month, January. Mr. Sosigenes also instructed that a true “year” around the sun is six hours longer than 365, so JC decreed that once every four years an extra day be added.

We know most of this.

After JC was killed, his successor, Mark Anthony (with a K, not a C), changed the name of Quintilis to July to honor him. But (with the ancient Romans there’s always a but), JC and Mr. Sosigenes miscalculated slightly, and by the end of the first millennium there were seven extra days, fifteen by the time Prague was founded in the 14th century. The Czechs were royally confused. And to add to this clusterfuck of cloistered calendar decision makers, a monk, Dionysius Exiguus, figured out in the early 500’s that Christ was born about 753 years after the founding of the city of Rome and called that year of His birth “zero.” Up until then, Roman years from 753 BC on were numbered from the founding of the city. So at the time of Christ’s birth, according to Brother D, Christ was born in 753 Ab Urbe Condita (“from the founding of the city’”). The monk decided, conveniently during a time when Christianity was sweeping the empire, to call that year zero, but it wasn’t widely adapted until the eighth century as the Roman Empire was becoming the Holy Roman Empire.  

Then in the 1740’s, Jacques Cassini confirmed the year zero with his astronomical skills, and it was only then that the Roman years before zero were labeled “Before Christ.” If it wasn’t for Brother D and Professor C, New Year’s this Janus the 1st would be the year 2774 Ab Urbe Condita, or AUC.

So with all that timeline information, we cut to the 1570s, about the time St. Augustine, Florida was beginning to flourish. St. Gregory the XIII hired a Jesuit astronomer named Chris to fix the damn thing once and for all and get the dates aligned with the sun, and he did so by dropping ten days from the calendar for that year only—a realignment if you will, and the Gregorian calendar started in 1582.

Thursday, December 21st, 1581 was followed by Friday, January 1st, 1582.

You know they partied hardy that New Year’s Eve. I’ve awakened on January first with some serious hangovers in my years, but I’ve never thought, “What the hell happened to the last ten days!?”

So while I’m not really certain most of the time what day of the week it is anyway, I do know of one consistency through the ages from 753 BC through some hot summer Quintilis afternoons, and on past zero to today: People from kings and popes to paupers and astronomers made resolutions. For sure for all these January firsts people have wanted to spend more time with those they loved, wanted to go for more walks in nature, stare at the moon, wake up with the sun, love.

For all of the knowledge gained from college degrees and Wikipedia, no information can inform how I feel when we’re standing on the sand at the beach before dawn, quietly watching the surfacing sun, the buffleheads swim by, the oyster boats churn out to sea. No calendar can keep measure of the time since my father died; I can argue it was a month ago, I can claim it decades ago. My childhood on the Island was almost five decades ago, yet last week when it was very much on my mind, I could visualize that time as if it happened on Tuesday.

Calendars keep track of time, but they can never measure moments, they cannot calculate how long we love, how long we’ve mourned.

If we made lists of all the reasons why we needed to know the days of the week, I really don’t think they would be that long, nor the reasons to remember the year for that matter. It is as irrelevant as it is essential, existing in the extremes of our lives.

John Prine pointed out that the “days just flow by like a broken-down dam.”

Yes. They do, whether we count them or not, they just flow right by.

Julian Calendar

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