The New Year: the organisation of time

The concept of the New Year is something that exists cross-culturally, originating in ancient and possibly even prehistoric times, and continuing into the present day where the first day of the year is celebrated around the world.

The new year is observed through the tracking of time in calendars, which can be organised by different principles. Given the passing of days as marked by sunrise and sunset, ancient practices of timekeeping were based on this regular occurrence.  

Lunar Calendar

Lunar calendars are based on the cycle of the Moon, measured by lunar (also known as synodic) months which cover the phases of the Moon including new, full, gibbous and crescent moons. The appearance of the Moon from Earth is determined by the position of the Moon in relation to the Sun and Earth, with the naming of the Moon phases referring to the portion of the Moon that is illuminated by the Sun at a point in time. This cycle covers about 29.5 days with small variations.

Illustration of the eight phases of the Moon with an arrow showing the order they appear in, seen from Earth.
Eight phases of the Moon, seen from Earth (

Solar Calendar

The solar calendar is based on the seasons, which are dictated by the relative position of the Sun to the stars as observed from Earth. The calculation of the solar calendar differs based on whether the position of the Sun is determined in relation to equinox (the twice annual phenomena of the Earth's equator passing through the geometric centre of the Sun), known as the tropical solar calendar, or if the calendar is based on the the position of fixed stars, which is labelled the sidereal solar calendar. Solar cycle in relation to Earth
Solar cycle in relation to Earth (

The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar and is the most widespread calendar used around the world today. It was officially introduced in the west in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII as a modification of the Julian calendar proposed by Julius Caesar and adopted in 45 BCE.

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One of the first printed editions of the Gregorian calendar, Lunario Novo, Secondo la Nuova Riforma della Correttione del l'Anno Riformato da N.S. Gregorio XIII (link here)

Zodiac Calendar

The Zodiac calendar is an example of the latter form of solar calendar, where the passage of time is determined by defined constellations that the sun appears to pass through (from our perspective on Earth) throughout the year. Twelve zodiac constellations have been identified, emerging in ancient times. The Zodiac calendar has its origins in ancient Mesopotamia with the Babylonians, who lived in the region of modern day Iraq from around 2300-500 BCE
The Babylonians assigned 12 constellations to the zodiac. Each of these was associated with a month of about 30 days. Over time the angle of Earth has shifted, resulting in gradual changes in timing of the alignment of the zodiac constellations with the sun as viewed from Earth. The Babylonian notion of the zodiac may be derived from the even earlier Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) from about 4500 BCE. Images of constellations and their associated zodiac symbols are seen in ancient Sumer and Babylon on clay tablets and inscribed stones.
Late Babylonian Astrological Tablet (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University)

This zodiac division of constellations and their relationship to the calendrical tracking of time has been sustained from its origins, being adopted and built upon by the ancient Greeks and Romans, in the Hebrew Bible, by Islamic astronomers in the Middle Ages/ Medieval period (approximately 5th to 15th century CE), and in the European Renaissance.
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Zodiac mosaic from 6th century CE synagogue (link here)

Throughout its history, the association of the constellations with symbols has been enduring. The Western zodiac tradition outlined here shares some similarities with the Chinese and other East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, but also diverges in important ways. Whereas the Western zodiac is based on the cycle of constellations taking place each year, the Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar and occurs in a 12 year cycle, with each year being assigned an animal. Each of these animal signs is also linked to a season and lunar month within that season. The Chinese zodiac was officially identified during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 9 CE), and linked to the lunar calendar which dates back further to at least the 14th century BCE.
Chinese zodiac (Moonlightened Shelves, Wordpress)

Lunisolar calendar

Lunisolar calendars incorporate elements of both lunar and solar calendars, indicating the phase of the moon and the time of the solar year. For solar years based on the tropical year the calendar will designate the season, whereas solar years based on the sidereal year indicate the constellation near which a full moon will appear. 

The Bengali calendar is an example of a lunisolar calendar. This calendar is used in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent, encompassing Bangladesh and northeastern India, and may have Hindu, Buddhist and/or Islamic influences. A revised version was adopted as the national calendar of Bangladesh in 1987.  Slight modifications to the number of days in a month have taken place since then. 

Based on the lunisolar calendar, the annual date for the first day of the first month usually falls on or around 14th April. Bengali New Year, known as Pahela Baishakh or Bangla Noboborsho, is the first day of the Bengali calendar and is celebrated as a national holiday in Bangladesh on 14th April and 14th or 15th April in the Bengal region of India. Mangal Shobhajatra, a procession that takes place on the Bengali New Year at dawn, is organised by the teachers and students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, and was inscribed on the intangible cultural heritage list by UNESCO in 2016

Large paper-made replica of a Bengal tiger being carried at Mangal Shobhajatra (link here)

The tradition of timekeeping and celebration of the New Year is one of the ways in which our human past, present and future are interlinked across cultures, albeit with significant differences in the way these concepts are viewed and represented based on the presence of diverse belief systems and cultural characteristics around the world. This is one of our shared experiences of being human.


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