• A Happy New Year!-in March?|戴啟思

  • 發布日期:2021-01-09 11:00
  • A Happy New Year!-in March?|戴啟思


Have you ever wondered why the first day of the New Year in the Western Calendar-January 1-comes immediately after the last day in the tenth month of the old year-December 31?

The name December is clear about this-‘decem' is the Latin for 'ten'. Why should the tenth month of the year be followed by the first month of a new year when everyone knows there are 12 months in a year? And why should the new year start in January?

The answer to the question is Julius Caesar. As the man who conquered modern-day France and Belgium, invaded Britain and upended the Roman Republic, he already made a lasting mark upon European history when political rivals murdered him in 44 B.C.

However, Julius Caesar had interests other than military and political. He was intrigued by the vagaries of the solar calendar. The Romans inherited a tradition of calculating the length of the year, which depended on calculating the time that the Sun took to return to a fixed point in the sky.

There were four fixed points: the spring and autumn equinoxes when the Sun appeared to move across the hemispheres and the summer and winter solstices when the Earth's poles were at their maximum tilts to and away from the Sun.

When measured at intervals between equinoxes or solstices, the length of a solar year was 365 days and a fraction of a day.

The earliest Roman calendars-some six centuries before Julius Caesar came on the scene-took as their starting point the spring equinox in a month which the Romans named after the god of war-‘Mars'. The months of September, October, November and December were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months after the month of Mars month, i.e. March. This sequence was determined by a very ancient calendar which split the year into ten months only which lasted until about 700 B.C. when two extra months were added-January and February.

However, ordering the sequence of months in this way could not address the problem of the accumulated fractions of a day over successive 12-month cycles. Failing to account for these fractions, which was a problem known to the Romans, led to drifts in the calendar so that the anniversaries of solstices and equinoxes were predictable-were sometimes weeks out when it came to accurate accounting by the calendar for these parts of a day.

The ad hoc solution to solve 'wandering days' over the year was to insert extra days to catch up with the solar cycle. This adjustment was called 'intercalation'.

Intercalations were not done annually. It was customary for days and weeks of these fractions of a day to accumulate before adjusting so that several years could go by without intercalation.

The problem with intercalation was that it was not an exact science. There could be a difference of opinion about how many days were needed for 'true' intercalation'. Because religious cults and governments needed to be accurate, timekeepers-one for calculating the dates of festivals and the other for good administration-there could be two different intercalations in a society.

Moreover, there was sometimes to extend or curtail an intercalation for political reasons. In republican Rome, men held offices of state-such as a consulship or magistrates post-for twelve months. Political rivalries might affect the declaration of an intercalation to extend the office of an ally or curtail a rival's office.

By the time Julius Caesar looked at calculating a solar year, ancient astronomers had worked out the exact length of a solar year at 365.25 days. When Julius Caesar's advisers applied this formula to calculate the length of a year it was clear that the previous intercalations had been grossly inaccurate. It was time to make a fresh start.

The changes took effect in 45 B.C., one year after the murder of Julius Caesar. The first day of the year would be January 1, the date that the terms of consuls had traditionally started. Also, just over four months' of intercalation were added to 'catch up' with the redefined solar calendar.

In order to prevent the mischief of irregular intercalations, officials would round up the fractions of a day in each year once every four years by adding one extra day to the 28 day-long month of February, named after Roman purification ceremonies called 'februa'. This adjustment gave us the 'year that jumps' or the 'leap year'.

January 1 did not last long as the opening date of the New Year. The Christians came along and, by the Fifth Century, they were the dominant religion.

Although Christians celebrated Christmas as the birth date of Jesus Christ, the significant event for them was Easter. This was the time when Jesus Christ died and was resurrected. Easter's date was calculated by reference to the first full moon after the spring equinox on March 21.

It was an event that was satisfyingly close to the fixed Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, the date on which an angel announced to Mary that she was to give birth to the Christ child. In this way, Easter and the Feast of the Annunciation came to mark the beginning of the year for Christians from about the Sixth Century.

Things changed again in the Sixteenth Century, however. Astronomers had improved on the calculation of a solar year. They reckoned that the solar year as calculated in Julius Caesar's days was out by a tiny fraction and that the right figure was a bit closer to 365.24 days. The discrepancy had resulted in a drift of 10 days over a thousand years.

The computational error did not matter for ordinary folk, but it was unacceptable to the Catholic Church, which needed an accurate solar calendar to calculate Easter's date.

Pope Gregory revised the Julian Calendar in 1582 by decreeing that Thursday, October 4 of that year would be followed by Friday, October 15. He also restored January 1 as New Years' Day, recognising that there was a strong tradition even among Christians to celebrate mid-winter with feasting of pre-Christian origin. Indeed, the Christmas period's feast dates coincided with wild celebrations in pagan Rome in honour of the god Saturn.

The Gregorian Calendar, as it came to be known, did not catch on in all Europe immediately. The Pope's authority no longer extended to all Europe as it had done just a hundred years before. Protestantism had divided the Christian church, and at the end of the Sixteenth Century in Protestant countries, there was mistrust of anything coming from the Pope.

It was not until the second half of the Eighteenth century that Protestant Europe adopted Pope Gregory's reformed calendar. Great Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar by an Act of Parliament in 1750 which provided that intercalation would be done by adding a day to February every fourth year.

As for Hong Kong, in colonial times the colonial administration applied the Gregorian calendar as adopted in Great Britain. The counting of years in Hong Kong is done by applying a P.R.C. law in Annex III of the Basic Law.

The relevant law is the National Flag and National Anthem made in 1949 which includes this provision on the Calendar: It is unanimously adopted that the Gregorian calendar shall be used as the chronological system in the People's Republic of China. This year is nineteen forty-nine.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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