Calendars are used to calculate the passage of time and show how many days must pass before something of importance happens – a religious festival or notable visit, perhaps.
The earliest calendars were based on the phases of the moon, but this soon proved unsatisfactory.
Prior to 45 BCE, the Roman solar year lasted 355 days and New Year was celebrated in March, but this system soon fell out of step with the seasons and had to be regularly adjusted.
The Roman dictator Julius Caesar sought advice from a famous astronomer and decided to adopt a solar year of 365¼ days, starting on January 1.
The days were distributed over 12 months, with an extra day added to February every fourth year. This called for a series of drastic corrections which turned 46 BCE into a “year of confusion” which was 445 days long.
The beginning of the Julian year fell on the first day of January, a month named in honour of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions, and also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time.
He was usually depicted with faces looking in opposite directions, enabling him to look backwards to the past and forwards to the future at the same time.
The new calendar was a great improvement and was used throughout Europe until 1582. However, the Julian year was too long by 11 minutes, and as the centuries passed, Easter began to stray away from its traditional season of spring.
The next change was made by Pope Gregory XIII who introduced the Gregorian calendar in Catholic countries in 1582. He ordered that 10 days be removed from October, and established a new rule that only one of every four centennial years (1600, 1700, 1800, etc) should be a leap year.
Protestant and Eastern Orthodox nations resisted these changes for up to 300 years, causing considerable official, commercial and personal confusion.
In the Middle Ages, New Year celebrations were considered pagan, and January 1 was denied the status of a public holiday. Instead, other dates were chosen which matched important dates on the Christian calendar.
The turn of the year began to assume more importance after 1582, but in countries like Britain which didn’t adopt the reformed calendar until 1752, New Year continued to be celebrated in March.
Although the Gregorian calendar is widely used for secular and business purposes, other systems exist which have a special cultural or religious significance, including those devised by Druids, Hebrews, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese and Zoroastrians.
Nowadays, despite – or because of – looming social, economic and environmental crises, millions of revellers flock to mass functions and all-night festivities. Others reject hedonism and celebrate more thoughtfully and less hectically.
Best wishes to all Cape Argus readers for health and happiness in 2019.
* Jackie Loos' "The Way We Were" column is published in the Cape Argus every week.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.