Why is the first month of the year called January?


We may picture the passage of time in spatial terms: a room which holds the past within, and the space beyond, where the future lies, with a door separating the two. In this metaphor, we fling open the door to another new year. As a door has two faces, one looking inside and the other at the space beyond, so too this new month has two faces, one looking back into the accumulated past-years, and the other facing the future yet to be born.

Janus was the name of a two-faced God of the Romans, who was the beginning of everything in the Roman world. He was the god of all exits and entrances. Hence all gates and doors were regarded as holy. In this, there is more than mythology: We see here a deep insight into the nature of Time, for between the has-been and the yet-to-be is the winking present that alone is perceived reality.

Most nations follow what we call the Gregorian calendar for international trade, exchanges, and organizations. This calendar is a refined version of the one introduced by Julius Caesar in Roman in 46 BC.

The Julian calendar had 365 days with twelve months. Every four years a day was added (leap year) to compensate for the fact that the solar year has almost 365.25, not exactly 365. But it is not exactly a quarter more, actually only 365.2425 days. So this needs to be diminished periodically. Thus came about the Gregorian calendar, initiated during the reign and under the direction of Pope Gregory.It is important to realize in this context that there are scores of different calendars used by different people in different countries, cultures and religion. There is the Islamic calendar, Jewish calendar, Coptic calendar, Iranian calendar, etc. In India several regional calendars are still in vogue although, in principle, one national calendar was adopted in 1957. The first month is variously called:  Aviv (Hebrew calendar), Boishak (Bengali calendar), Chaitra (Sanskrit calendar),  Muharram (Islamic calendar),  Ichigatsu (Japanese calendar), and so on.

In most traditions, as at one time among the ancient Romans too, the year begins with the onset of spring (in the Northern hemisphere): Usually March, the month of sowing, making  – as their names still remind us –  the months from September to December  seventh (septem: seven) to the tenth (decem: ten) month.

In ancient Rome there were only ten months every year. It was in about 713 BCE that two months were added to this at the beginning of the year: January and February, as we call them in English.

January 1, 2015

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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