Happy New Year through Space and Time








Happy New Year! At least we all hope so.

But what exactly is a year, how did they come to be numbered, and why do we celebrate the transition from one year to the next?

A year is a measurement of time based on the number of times the Earth rotates on its axis while making a complete orbit around the sun. At present, it's takes about 365 earthly rotations (days) for the Earth to complete one solar orbit (one year).

We tend to take calendars for granted. Do you want to know what day it is? Look at a wall calendar, your watch, your cell phone, or call it up on your computer. The passage of time was very important to ancient people, but they lacked our ready access to calendars. Being able to predict and mark the passage of time and seasons was crucial to their survival and is one of the basic building blocks of human civilization.

Ancient people needed a calendar to be able to tell when to plant their crops, when to harvest, when to migrate or to build winter shelters. The Earth is a harsh mistress, and if they lost track of those things, they were likely to die. At first they used phases of the moon and the procession of constellations in the heavens as a natural calendar in the sky. Later, ancient Europeans and some American Indian tribes used calendar circles made of wood or stone to take sightings on astronomical events, such as the winter solstice and the spring equinox, to mark the passage of time.  The most famous of these is Stonehenge, seen on the 1990 British 37-penny stamp (Scott 1339) shown in Figure 1. 

The Maya developed an elaborate stone calendar, which was later adopted by the Aztecs. An Aztec stone calendar is seen on the 1992 Mexican 2,000-peso stamp (1761) shown in Figure 2.  Some people think that because the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, the world will end then.

Figure 1        Figure 2



Having established calendars to mark the passage of a year, people needed a way to number them, to refer to the present year, years past, or years in the future. In most ancient societies, the years were numbered by the reign of the king. Some modern countries, such as Japan and Thailand, still use this system. In Japan, this is year Heisei 21, because it is the 21st year of the reign of the Emperor Akihito.

Ancient Rome, being originally a republic, had no king, so its years were dated A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, Latin for from the founding of the city of Rome). A 1911 Italian 15-centesimo Dea Roma stamp (Scott 122) is shown in Figure 3. Dea Roma is the female deity who personified the city of Rome.

In 1278 A.U.C., a Scythian monk living in Rome named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short) created a year numbering system based on the date of Jesus' birth. He computed the birth of Jesus to have taken place 525 years before (his computations were actually off by about 10 years but that's another story). In his system, 1278 A.U.C. became A.D. 525 (the A.D. representing anno domini, Latin for in the year of our Lord). Dionysius' system of numbering years caught on, and today it is used by much of the world, Christian or not. Years before the birth of Jesus are reckoned backwards from the year of Jesus' birth and are labeled B.C. (before Christ). For example, the year 1 A.U.C. is 753 B.C. in Dionysius' system.

After the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, the days grow shorter and shorter until the shortest day of the year is reached at the winter solstice, currently Dec. 21. In antiquity, people began to celebrate the beginning of the new year shortly after the winter solstice, as the slow progression into shorter, colder, darker days was halted and reversed and days began to lengthen again. The lengthening of days was a promise that spring and summer would return, crops would grow and life would continue. The Roman god Janus, for whom our month of January is named, was the god of beginnings and endings who reigned over new year celebrations. Janus was depicted with two heads or faces, looking in opposite directions, so he could see both the past and the future. In Greek mythology, Janus' counterpart was an aspect of the god Hermes, known as Hermes Dicephalus (two-headed Hermes). A 1988 French 3.70-franc Hermes Dicephalus stamp (Scott 2116) is shown in Figure 4.


Figure 3.                         Figure 4. 


We continue the practice today, many of us eating and drinking too much on the last day of the year, then promising to do better in the coming year with our New Year's resolutions.

Rick Miller, senior editor, Linn's Stamp News