Some years ago and in another country, I used to go out with someone who questioned all manner of received wisdom. ‘How do you know that?’ he’d say. ‘How can you be sure?’ What a great time he must be having now, in the era of fake news. But still … I challenged myself to write down some assumptions. What do I know (or think I know) about January?
- January is named for Janus, the Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions.
- January is the first month of the year.
- January the 1st is New Year’s Day.
- January has 31 days.
- January 1st is a Bank Holiday.
Easy. Easy? Come dig with me in the internet and we’ll see about that.
Assumption 1. January is named for Janus, the Roman god with two-faces looking in opposite directions.
First blow: the month is ‘conventionally thought of’ as being named for Janus. Ouch! But who says this? Wikipedia1, under the entry January, with an explanation that according to ancient farmer’s almanacs the month belongs to Juno.
This seems counterintuitive, since Janus sounds like January and Juno sounds like June. There is another well to be dug checking what the story is regarding Juno and her relationship to Janus. For now, I will just mention that conventional thinking that January or ‘Ianuarius, fully Mensis Ianuarius is Latin for the “January Month”, i.e., “The Month of Janus”‘ comes from Wikipedia’s own Ianurius page2, and is corroborated by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Janus, I find out, is the god of doorways and arches. As these look both ways, so does the god. He not only has eyes in the back of his head, but a whole face. Though, who is to say which is the front and which is the back? He is a god of comings and goings, sometimes depicted bearded or beardless on both sides and sometimes with a beard one side and cleanshaven (or beardless) the other. I am not sure whether the beard indicated maturity and the beardless face youth, or just someone who liked a good shave. When the faces are not identical this brings up other questions about past and future, inwards and outwards.
Further digging uncovers the following: that sometimes Janus had four heads, if he was associated with an archway with four openings; that Janus was one of the original gods of the home; that ianua is the Latin word for ‘door’; that some experts quibble over whether the word January comes from the word for ‘door’ or the word ‘Janus’, but as Professor Gary Forsythe puts it, in a footnote on page 166 of his 2012 edition of essays, Time in Roman Religion3: ‘the distinction between the two possible etymologies seems insignificant’. Thank you.4
Other things I now think I know about Janus: that, unlike other Roman gods, he had no Greek counterpart; he was one of the first of the Roman gods; that it is possible he is based on a real person (a person with two faces? Not really two faces but the same face pointing in different directions), whose story became mythological; that in one theory the death of his son Tiberinus in or near the River Albula caused it to be renamed the Tiber5; that the temples dedicated to Janus in Rome had doors at either end, and that these were left open in time of war (and therefore hardly ever closed); and that the Roman army going off to fight would march through an archway of Janus as they left the city but to do so in the wrong way, would bring bad luck to the enterprise.6
There is a great deal more that could be said or written about Janus – his changing role, the use of ‘Janus-faced’ to indicate something with sharply contrasting aspects and examples of how this is used in literature; the transition from two faces guarding a portal or presiding over periods of transition or new beginnings to two faces telling different stories, that is being two-faced, deceitful and untrustworthy – but there is not space or time to include it here, at least not if I want to finish this blog post in January.
Assumption 2: January is the first month of the year.
Yes, it is. Or rather, it is now, in the Gregorian calendar (in use as a civic calendar all over the world, though other calendars are also available). But in Britain and its colonies this was only made official in 1752. Before that the year began in March. And before that, sometimes, in January.
There have been shifts: under the Julian calendar (on which the Gregorian calendar is based), depending on when and where it was in use, the first month of the year has sometimes been March and sometimes January. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, January replaced March as the first month of the year in the Roman calendar no later than 153 BCE, long before Julius Caesar brought about the reforms named after him to bring the calendar back into line with the seasons and fixed points of the solar year.
So what does that say about Janus and the beginnings of the year? Janus was around since before Rome was founded, apparently. At this point my brain is starting to feel like it is unspooling from inside my skull so I move on. But not far.
Assumption 3: January the 1st is New Year’s Day.
Assuming January is the first month of the year then it is a safe bet that the first day of the month is also the first day of the New Year. Only, it wasn’t just the ancient Romans who began the year in March. Leaving aside for the time being the pagan calendar, this is a brief run-down of how things have worked out since Christians have been doing the counting.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the New Year was moved backwards to align with the Christian festival of Christmas and the New Year began at Christmas in many European countries. I have often wondered why Christmas and New Year were separated.
By the ninth century it was moved in some southern European countries to March 25 – the Feast of the Annunciation (nine months before the birth of Christ) also known as ‘Lady Day’. England caught up with this in the 12th century from which point March 25 was the beginning of the year. References to the first month of the year were, for several centuries, references to March, while references to the twelfth month would mean February.
We can still see this in the names of the months: September means seventh month, October means eighth month, November ninth month and December tenth month: although it has to be remembered that the old old Roman calendar only had ten months to start with and that January and February were added (long before Julius Caesar’s reform).
Although Pope Gregory instituted a reform of the calendar in 1582, to correct the misalignment caused by a slight flaw in the Julian calendar, which meant it was lagging behind, Protestant countries such as England continued to use the Julian calendar. From this point, dates could be different depending on where you were in Europe, because the Gregorian calendar dropped ten days from the month of October, in order to catch up with itself. According to the Gregorian calendar, January 1st was once again New Year’s Day.
For a couple of centuries, there were not only two sets of dates in use, depending on where you were in Europe, but also two different starts to the year. Over time, in England and its colonies, though March 25 was still legally the first day of the New Year, it came to be called ‘Old Style’. Other countries celebrating on January 1st had New Style New Year. Sometimes a double date was given for a particular event for ‘clarity’.
January 1st has only been, legally, the first day of the New Year, in Britain and the territories it ruled, since 1752. 1751 was a short year from March 25 to December 31st. By the time the British got around to catching up to the ‘New Style’ Gregorian calendar it was necessary to drop 11 days from September 1752. Apparently, this was a hot topic in the British election of 17547
It was still some time before the new dates could be taken for granted. George Washington, for example, was born on February 11, 1731 but after the reforms recognised the date of his birth as February 22, 1732. Historians and writers of historical fiction do well to double check – if double-dating is not supplied.
In other cultures January 1st is not and never has been the first day of the year anyway, though the Gregorian calendar is used as a civil calendar in many parts of the world. It is probably expedient to do so: it must help a bit with air travel, like when the railway timetables dictated the syncing of clocks throughout one time ‘zone’ e.g. the whole of the UK. Before that midday really was the middle of the day in your locality.
Today, religious and other festivals and calendars are calculated differently in China, Korea, Bali, Iran, some southern states of India, Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Tamil diasporas in Malaysia and Singapore. There are some states in Northern India which celebrate Diwali as the start of the New Year, the Jewish New Year has its own calculation as does the Islamic New Year and the Chinese New Year. A now extinct tribe in Western Australia has customs that live on in legend. Yes, many more calendars are also available.
Assumption 4: January has 31 days.
Yes – in the Gregorian calendar. And in the Julian Calendar (the reform of the Roman calendar under Julius Caesar added two days: before that January had 29 days).
Do you ever have need to remember which months have which number of days? Going through the rhyme, ’30 days hath September …’ can be a long-winded way of reminding yourself how many days July hath. Dutch children are apparently taught the knuckle method in primary school.
Make a fist. Starting with January count across the knuckles and the dips. Every knuckle ‘month’ has 31 days.8 The dips or gaps are all 30 days except Feb. And we all know February likes to be different. Don’t we?
Assumption 5: January 1st is a Bank Holiday.
In my head I added ‘and always has been’ and was astonished to learn that New Year’s Day has only been a Bank Holiday since 1974. The website that set me off checking this (yes I did check it elsewhere to be sure) is called IanVisits. Ian is the Scottish form of John, I believe, and Ianus, I also believe, is an alternative form of Janus. All things are circular, if not elliptical, as we move around the sun. More assumptions to challenge next month!
Has anything here come as a surprise?
Is it too much to read all in one go?9
What assumptions have you challenged lately?
Add your comments below.
- Do we trust Wikipedia? It was the top result in a google search, which I think means many people read it, so it doesn’t hurt to check what it is saying, even though it is not a good reference to include for your university coursework (academic rigour providing a plumbline for what is and is not ‘acceptable’ as ‘knowledge’). I always aim to check the original and other sources. ↩
- I took a screenshot of the page and then decided not to use it having read an article about people getting into legal battles after using screenshots of other people’s websites. Even though it is likely I would be allowed to do it as blog posts are usually covered, being, like this one, for ‘comment’ or ‘educational use’, I don’t think I would like to spend my time dealing with it. I would have thought Wikipedia would be glad of the free advertising. But then what do I know? The truth is the likelihood that Wikipedia would ever find out anyway is small, unless millions of people start reading my monetized (nasty word) website. Has anyone else used screenshots of sites like Wikipedia, Amazon or Google in their blog posts? ↩
- A work I now feel I must read even though it costs nearly £30. Price correct for the Kindle edition 27 January 2018, on which date the paperback was £30 and the Hardback £110, new from Amazon, because that is what academic books cost. Thank goodness for libraries. ↩
- And yet I suspect this will be nibbling away at the edges of my mind in some dark night to come, unless I can do something useful with it (i.e. by making something up, which people agree and understand is made up, though it may reveal some kind of truth). Meanwhile, I note that it seems possible that the god of doorways and passages – places which exist and yet, in terms of content are made out of a nothing framed by a something – became the metaphorical god of beginnings and was invoked as such in Roman rituals. ↩
- In other theories Tiberinus might have been the father of Janus or even the same person. Conclusion: it’s hard to know so better to refer to ‘the known theories’ instead of ‘the known facts’. ↩
- Oh how I wonder what ‘in the wrong way’ could mean? Hopping when they should be skipping? Marching in or out of time? Forgetting to go backwards and spit? If anyone knows the answer please comment. ↩
- Although it might not have been a matter for rioting as has sometimes been supposed, it’s likely that some people felt that they had lost these days of their lives and they could not be returned, though it was only a matter of counting. Perhaps when Julius Caesar extended one year by over a hundred days to make way for his reformed calendar, people were grateful to him for the gift of an extra long life? ↩
- Apart from counting knuckles, I think, now that I have realised there is something going on with odd and even numbers, I could remember by reminding myself that the months with 31 days are all uneven to begin with: January, March, May and July, all evenly spaced like orderly mountains with valleys between. July and August are two mountains close together and from then on the months with 31 days are evenly spaced again, on even numbers: August, October and December. It would look better as a picture. ↩
- This is my first go at using footnotes in a blog post. A nice person from WordPress (one of their Happiness Engineers) showed me how to do this using html and then he remembered I could use Markdown. So I have been trying out Markdown while writing the post. Reading footnotes is optional. Isn’t it? ↩