Whenever I asked what January meant, I was simply told: “The first month of the year in the calendar”. That statement sounded very abstract and it was a tad too vague for me. I therefore set out on a search for more information about January, so as to satisfy my own personal curiosity. In this article, I present and discuss cultural background on the name “January” including its history, traditions, and customs. All pertinent facts are thoroughly examined and considered in detail.
January is named for Janus, a god in Roman mythology, and is represented by a look to signify his knowledge of the present and future. He was the god of the doorway and protector of all entrances and gateways. It has been documented that Janus has a distinctive artistic appearance in that he is commonly depicted with two faces, one regarding what is behind and the other looking toward what lies ahead. Thus, Janus is representative of contemplation on the happenings of an old year while looking forward to the new. Some sources claim that Janus was characterized in such a peculiar fashion due to the notion that doors and gates look in two directions. Therefore, the god could look both backward and forward at the same time. Originally, Janus was portrayed with one bearded face and the other clean-shaven, which may have symbolized the moon and the sun, or age and youth. Later, he is most often shown with beards on both faces and frequently holds a key in his right hand.
In his role as the Guardian of Exits and Entrances, Janus was also believed to represent beginnings. The explanation for this belief being that one must emerge through a door or gate in order to enter into a new place. Therefore, the Romans also considered Janus as the god of Beginnings and his name was an obvious choice for the first month of their year, a month referred to by the Ancient Romans as “Ianuarius”, which is not so far removed from the modern-day "January," taken from the Etruscan word “jauna” which means "door." Originally, however, Janus was honored on the first day of every month, in addition to being worshipped at the beginning of planting season and again at the harvest. Deference was also paid to him at the most important beginnings in the life of an individual such as birth and marriage.
The dual-faced image of Janus could be found on most city gates and many Roman coins. Given his role as Guardian of Gates, his position as the god of Beginnings and the esteem of having the first month of the year named in his honor, it is apparent that Janus played a significant role in Roman myth and religion. He was invoked at the start of each new day and often referred to as the Porter of Heaven. He particularly presided over all that is double-edged in life and represented the transition between the primitive and civilization. Romans prayed to Janus during war. The Romans had an important temple to Janus, which was called the Ianus geminus. This temple served a symbolic function. When the gates of the structure were closed, this represented peace in the Roman Empire; but when the gates were open, it meant that the Romans were at war. They also called on him at the beginning of every prayer, even before Jupiter (In Greek mythology, Zeus corresponds to Jupiter in Roman mythology who was the king of Heaven and Earth and of all the Olympian gods. He was also known as the god of justice).
Janus in the Italian Culture:
Janus, the fabled offspring of Coelus and Hecate, or of Apollo and Creusa, reigned in early times over Italy, and was the founder of the town Janiculum, the boasted father of Fontus. According to other documents Janus as the fabled son of Uranus, was and still is believed to have been the most ancient King of Italy, whose hospitality received Saturn, when, as a fugitive from Crete, the father of Jupiter, banished by his son, arrived on the shores of Latinum. According to the account of Aurelius Victor, Janus was the master-mind of the age in which he lived; and as the founder of Janiculum, he taught his people the divisions of the year, the use of shipping, and of money, the rules of justice, and the mode of living happily under the authority of the laws; he also instructed them how to build temples and to honor the Gods with sacrificial worship; to surround the cities with walls, to grow corn and to plant the vine. It was out of gratitude for these alleged benefits that Janus was placed by the Romans in the rank of the gods, and regarded as presiding over treaties. On the first of January, or in the calends of that month, they celebrated the Janualia. At that festival they offered to Janus a mixture of flour and salt, with incense and with wine.
Janus in the Persian and the Greek Cultures:
Janus did not have any counterpart in either Persian or Greek mythologies.
Janus in the Vedic Culture:
Veda is a term for one or all of the holy books of writings of Hinduism. In Vedic culture, the myth of the god Janus had four heads, each of which represented a phase of the moon in Sagittarius, which marked the four seasons. One head was the full moon, which gave the time of the spring equinox, another was the new moon, during which time the autumn equinox fell, still another was the half waning moon, marking the winter solstice, and finally came the head representing the half waxing moon, during which time came the summer solstice. From current knowledge of the movement of the sphere of stars surrounding the earth, it can be calculated that the observations leading to the myth of Janus were made around 4000 BC. Additionally, within the “Veda” is a verse observing the winter solstice in Aries, which would have placed it at around 6500 BC.
In other Cultures:
The Anglo-Saxons called the first month of the year as Wolf Monath (meaning wolf month) because wolves came into the villages in winter in search of food.
In old Japanese calendar, the month is called Mutsuki. The second day of the month is known as Hatsuyume and the 7th day as Nanakusa. In Finnish, the month is called Tammikuu, meaning "Month of the Oak".
In different Languages:
Here is the list of “January” in different languages:
January in Afrikaans is Januarie
January in Danish is Januar
January in Dutch is Januari
January in Finnish is Tammikuu
January in French is Janvier
January in German is Januar
January in Italian is Gennaio
January in Norwegian is Januar
January in Persian is Jaanveeyeh
January in Portuguese is Janeiro
January in Spanish is Enero
January in Swedish is Januari
The important events on January the 1st or the New Year Day in history are:
153 BC - Roman consuls first began their year in office
45 BC - Julian calendar went into effect
404 - Last gladiator competition in Rome
1438 - Albert II of Habsburg became King of Hungary
1502 - Rio de Janeiro discovered
1600 - Scotland first began the numbered year of its Julian calendar
1651 - Charles II crowned King of Scotland
1700 - Russia first adopted Western numbers for its Julian calendar
1707 - John V became King of Portugal
1788 - First edition of The Times, previously The Daily Universal Register, was published.
1804 - End of French rule in Haiti.
1808 - Importation of slaves into the United States was banned
1880 - Construction of the Panama Canal began
1887 - Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India
1893 - Japan accepted the Gregorian calendar
1899 - End of Spanish rule in Cuba.
1901 - Nigeria became a British protectorate
1901 - Establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia (Federation).
1902 - The first Rose Bowl game was played in Pasadena, California
1908 - A ball signifying New Year's Day dropped in Times Square, NYC, for the first time
1912 - Establishment of Republic of China
1925 – Reza Shah became the Shah of Iran
1934 - Alcatraz became a Federal Prison in the US.
1942 - The word "United Nations" was first officially used to describe the Allied Pact.
1948 - Nationalization of UK railways to form British Railways.
1956 - End of Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in Sudan.
1958 - European Community established
1959 - Cuba: Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro.
1960 - Cameroon became independent
1971 - Cigarette was banned on United States television
1973 - United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark joined the EEC
1981 - Greece entered the European Community
1984 - Brunei became a fully independent state.
1984 - Spain and Portugal entered the European Community
1993 - Czechoslovakia divided. Establishment of Slovakia and the Czech Republic
1993 - A single market within the European Community was introduced
1994 - North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect
1995 - World Trade Organization went into effect
1995 - Austria, Finland and Sweden entered the European Union
1999 - Euro currency introduced.
2002 - Euro banknotes and coins became legal tender.
2004 - Pervez Musharraf got vote of confidence to continue as President of Pakistan.
It should be also noted that in the month of January, there were two significant days in the history of Iran. On January 16, 1979 the monarchy regime was ended in Iran and on January 26, 1980 Abolhassan Bani Sadr was appointed as the First President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and he was overthrown a year after.
The Religious Observances of the New Year Day (January the 1st) are:
Anglican, Lutheran: Feast of Holy Name of Jesus
Christian: Feast of St Odilo
Old Roman Catholic: Commemoration of Circumcision of Jesus
Roman Catholic: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Unification Church: God's Day
Orthodox: St Basil's Day
January Definition in the Historical Documents:
Très Riches Heures Du Duc De Berry (a classic example of a medieval book of hours) described January as: “The month of giving New Years' gifts”.
The first Monday in January is known as Handsel Monday in Scotland and northern England. In England, the agricultural year began with Plough Sunday on the Sunday after Epiphany. The coming of age day in Japan is the second Monday of January, for those becoming 20 years old in the new calendar year. It is a national holiday. The day has existed since 1948, but fell on January 15 until 1999, when it was moved by the Japanese government in an attempt to lift the economy by making more holidays consecutive.
January the 1st is the beginning of the New Year and it is a time for looking forward. It is also a holiday. People welcome the New Year on the night before. This is called New Year's Eve. In Scotland, people celebrate with a lively festival called Hogmanay. All over Britain there are parties, fireworks, singing and dancing, to ring out the old year and ring in the new. As the clock, Big Ben, strikes midnight, people link arms and sing a song called Auld Lang Syne. It reminds them of old and new friends. In the USA, as the New Year approaches, New York City gets ready for its annual Times Square celebration. The famous ball drop atop of Times Square has been a tradition dating back to 1906. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people descend upon Times Square to experience this free event.
the Door Custom:
In the old days, the New Year started with a custom called 'First Footing', which was supposed to bring good luck to people for the coming year. As soon as midnight had passed and January 1st had started, people used to wait behind their doors for a dark haired person to arrive. The visitor carried a piece of coal, some bread, some money and some greenery. These were all for good luck, the coal to make sure that the house would always be warm, the bread to make sure everyone in the house would have enough food to eat, money so that they would have enough money, and the greenery to make sure that they had a long life. The visitor would then take a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with him, thus signifying the departure of the old year.
The Medieval Superstitions:
The 1st of January was a highly significant day in medieval superstitions regarding prosperity, or lack of it, in the year ahead. A flat cake was put on one of the horns of a cow in every farmyard. The farmer and his workers would then sing a song and dance around the cow until the cake was thrown to the ground. If it fell in front of the cow that signified a good luck, and to fall behind it indicated the opposite.
The Unlukiest Day of the Year:
It was an Old Saxon belief that January the 2nd was one of the unluckiest days of the whole year. Those unfortunate enough to be born on this day could expect to die an unpleasant death.
The Coldest Month and Day of the Year in britain:
January regularly produces frost, ice and snow and is the chilliest month of the year in Britain. St Hilary's feast day on 13th January has gained the reputation of being the coldest day of the year. This probably dates back to 1086, when a great frost started spreading over the country on St Hilary's Day. It lasted well into March, and is said to be the severest Arctic spell ever experienced in Britain.
January Thaw in North America:
The January thaw is an observed but unexplained weather phenomenon found in mid-latitude North America whereby temperatures tend to rise briefly in mid-winter. For five days around January 23 - 25, empirical expected temperatures are usually significantly warmer than as predicted by the sinusoidal estimate, and also warmer than neighboring temperatures on both sides. During this "thaw" period, usually lasting for about a week, temperatures are generally about 10°F (6°C) above normal. This is not invariant from year to year, and temperatures fluctuate enough that such a rise in late-January temperature would be unremarkable; what is remarkable (and unexplained) is the tendency for such rises to occur more commonly in late-January than in mid-January or early February, which sinusoidal estimates have to be slightly warmer. In some regions (such as northern Canada) this phenomenon will not be manifest as a "thaw" in the technical sense, since temperatures will remain below freezing.
Saint Agnes's Eve:
JANUARY 20th: This was the day on which girls and unmarried women who wished to dream of their future husbands would perform certain rituals before going to bed. These included transferring pins one by one from a pincushion to their sleeve whilst reciting the Lord's Prayer, or abstaining from food and drink all day, walking backwards up the stairs to bed, and eating a portion of dumb cake before lying down to sleep.
Custom of the Years's First New Moon:
It is said that if a woman looks at the new moon through a silk handkerchief, which has never been washed, the number of moons she sees will be the number of years that will pass until she is married. To dream of the future husband, it is said that at the first appearance of the first new moon of the year a woman should go out and stand over the spars of a gate or stile and look at the moon saying:
All hail to thee moon, all hail to thee,
I pray thee, good moon, reveal to me,
Who shall be my husband tonight?
Anniversaries on Different Days of January:
1st - The London Credit Exchange Company issued the first traveler’s checks in 1772.
2nd - On this date in 1770, a huge Xmas pie was baked for holiday consumption in London. According to the Newcastle Chronicle, it was made of "two bushels of flour, twenty pounds of butter, four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, four partridges, two curlews, seven blackbirds, and six pigeons. It was nearly nine feet in circumference at bottom, weighed about twelve stone."
9th - Income Tax was first introduced, at two shillings in the pound in England.
10th - The London Underground began operating in 1863.
11th - The first televised weather broadcast featuring a presenter on screen was transmitted from the BBC's Lime Grove Studios in 1954
11th - Charring Cross Station, London, opened in 1864
17th - Robert Scott and his party reached the South Pole in 1912
21st The BBC in London made its first world broadcast in 1930
26th - Australia Day
27th – Mozart, one of the world's greatest music composers, born in 1756 in Austria: (27th January 2006 is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth).
The State of the union address on January:
The State of the Union Address is an annual event in which the President of the United States reports on the status of the country, normally to a joint session of the US Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate). The address is also used to outline the President's legislative proposals for the upcoming year. It has occurred in the month of January except for 6 occasions in February since 1934.
A New Year resolution:
A New Year Resolution or A January Quest is a commitment that an individual makes to a project or a habit, often a lifestyle change that is generally interpreted as advantageous. The name comes from the fact that these commitments normally go into effect on New Year's Day (January the 1st) and remain until the set goal has been achieved, although many resolutions go unachieved and are often broken fairly shortly after they are set.
In conclusion, let’s read “A Poem For January” composed by Adrienne Rich who is one of the major American poetesses of the last half of this century:
"The work of winter starts fermenting in my head
How with the hands of a lover or a midwife
To hold back till the time is right
Force nothing, be unforced
Accept no giant miracles of growth
By counterfeit light
Trust roots, allow the days to shrink
Give credence to these slender means
Wait without sadness and with grave impatience
Here in the north where winter has a meaning
Where the heaped colors suddenly go ashen
Where nothing is promised
Learn what an underground journey
Has been, might have to be; speak in a winter code
Let fog, sleet, translate; wind, carry them".
Originally published Online on January 1, 2006
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
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