Why Does the New Year Start on January 1?

taa22/iStock via Getty Images
taa22/iStock via Getty Images

Way back when, the Romans had a god named Janus. He was the god of doors and gates and had two faces—one looking forward and one looking back. Julius Caesar thought it would be appropriate for January, Janus's namesake month, to be the doorway to a new year, and when he created the Julian calendar, he made January 1 the first day of the year (this also put the calendar year in line with the consular year, as new consuls also took office that day).

For Caesar, the Julian calendar was a political tool and weapon. As the Roman armies conquered new lands, the Empire often gave its new subjects some freedom in retaining certain religious and social customs. After the calendar was created, though, it was used in every corner of the Empire, not just for consistency, but to remind all citizens of Roman authority and Caesar's power.

After Rome fell and Christianity spread through Europe, the celebration of the new year was seen as pagan (the Romans, after all, had observed the new year's first day by having in drunken orgies), so the first day of the year was moved to a more agreeable date to Christianize it. Some countries started their year on March 25, the day Christians commemorate the announcement to Mary that she miraculously was pregnant. Other countries used Christmas Day, December 25, and others used Easter Sunday, no matter what date it fell on. Often, this change only applied to the government calendar's. In common usage, January 1 was still the first day of the year, as regular non-clergy, non-royal folks didn't see a need to change it.

Change of date

This calendrical chaos worked for a while, but a frustrated pope would put an end to it during the Middle Ages. An error in Caesar's calendar had caused the Julian year to become misaligned with the solar year. By 1582, the difference had grown to 10 days. Over the years, the Spring Equinox (and, with it, Easter) kept getting moved up, and Pope Gregory XIII was tired of having to reset the holiday. Gregory devised a new calendar that used a single leap day every four years to keep it aligned. He also restored January 1 as the first day of the year.

Most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar quickly, but the Protestant and Eastern Rite countries were a little more hesitant. The Protestants complained that the "Roman Antichrist" was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days. The Eastern Rite churches wanted to maintain tradition, so some Eastern European countries kept the Julian calendar for centuries more. Russia didn't switch to the Gregorian calendar until after the 1917 revolution, and even today the Eastern Orthodox Church still follows either the traditional or revised Julian calendar to set its liturgical year.

Eventually the Protestant nations came around and switched to the Gregorian calendar. Most, though, changed the start of the year well before they adopted the whole thing. England, Ireland and the British colonies made January 1 the start of the year in early 1752 Scotland had already switched about 150 years earlier) but waited until September to fully embrace the new calendar. The staggered move was perhaps symbolic, bringing the government calendar in line with the people's before bringing the nation's calendar in line the with Pope's.

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In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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