New Year's Day 2021

Why Does the Year Start on January 1?

December 16, 2020
New Year's Day Clock

Happy New Year! Ever wondered why January starts the new year? Find out all about New Year’s Day, popular customs, and how we celebrate the beginning of a new year in the United States and Canada.

Celebrating the New Year

It’s safe to say that we’re all ready to celebrate the start of a new year. This time around, New Year’s Eve is Thursday, December 31, 2020, and New Year’s Day is Friday, January 1, 2021. Celebrations will certainly look a different this year, but we still look forward to watching the grand fireworks displays that will mark the start of 2021.

Is the year 2021 the start of the new decade?

What Day Is New Year’s?

January 1 is a public holiday in the United States and Canada (as well as many countries around the world). It is a day off for the general population, and schools and most businesses are closed.

New Year’s Dates

Celebrating the Year… New Year’s Eve New Year’s Day
2021 Thursday, December 31, 2020 Friday, January 1, 2021
2022 Friday, December 31, 2021 Saturday, January 1, 2022
2023 Saturday, December 31, 2022 Sunday, January 1, 2023

Why January 1 Starts the New Year

January 1 starts the New Year according to the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar in use today. In 45 B.C., New Year’s Day was celebrated on January 1 for the first time in history when the Julian calendar took effect (thanks to Julius Ceasar’s reforms). Today’s Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to correct some slight inaccuracies, but continues to start the year in January.

The month of “January” is named for Janus, the ancient Roman god. Often depiced as having two faces—one looking forward and one looking back—Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, doors and gates, passageways and transitions.

In ancient Roman times, the gates of the temple of Janus were open in times of war and closed in times of peace. While Janus is linked to war, it was more as a way to protect and welcome returning warriors; at other times, he symbolizes peace. 

Janus am I; oldest of potentates;
Forward I look, and backward, and below
I count, as god of avenues and gates,
The years that through my portals come and go.

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet (1807–82)
 

Janus
A depiction of Janus.

The winter solstice was thought to occur on December 25. So, the New Year started on the 1st of the next month, January. The Romans consecrated this day to Janus, exchanging good wishes and gift of sweet figs and honey in Janus’ honor. 

→ See how all 12 birthday months got their names.

In modern times, not all cultures follow the Gregorian calendar. The date of the New Year in the Hindu, Chinese, Coptic, Jewish, and Islamic calendars differs.

For example…

  • The Chinese New Year starts in January or early February. Read more about the 2020 Chinese New Year.
  • The Jewish New Year (based on a lunar calendar) is called Rosh Hashanah and usually takes place in September.
  • The Islamic New Year, also known as the First of Muharram, is usually observed in July or August and is based on the sighting of the thin crescent Moon.

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New Year’s Eve Customs

The evening before New Year’s Day—New Year’s Eve—is when most people celebrate the turning of the year! As the clock counts down, people may celebrate the last hours at a party or watch a televised countdown. When the clock strikes midnight, the custom is to exchange hugs and kisses and wish each other a “Happy New Year!”

In Scotland, the custom of first-footing is an important part of the celebration of Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve Day. This practice holds that the first foot to cross a threshold after midnight will predict the next year’s fortune. Today, there is a custom of visiting good friends and family after midnight on New Year’s Eve. See more New Year Traditions Around the World.

Many people ring in the New Year by singing the Scottish song “Auld Lang Syne.” Robert Burns is credited with the two original stanzas, which most New Year revelers know (if that!):

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Chorus.-For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne
.

New Year’s Day Customs

A common custom on the first of the new year is to take time to reflect and make New Year’s resolutions. A fresh calendar encourages us to fill in the blanks with ambitious projects for home and personal improvement. Turn your face to the future with a few tips on how to make good New Year’s resolutions.

There are even some traditional New Year’s foods—many associated with good luck. One southern American recipe is Good Luck Hoppin’ John. A Scottish tradition is Hogmanay Shortbread.

Champagne and other holiday drink recipes are also served in celebration.

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Good Luck Hoppin’ John. Credit: Sam Jones/Quinn Brein

New Year’s Quotes

To help you ring in the New Year or write a special New Year’s greeting, we present some more verse from our archives.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

–Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)

Each age has deemed the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer.

–Sir Walter Scott

I hear you, blithe new year,
Ring out your laughter.

–Abba Goold Woolson

Hark! The Old Year is gone!
And the young New Year is coming!

–Bryan Waller Procter

Just listen to the merry New Year’s bells!
All hearts rejoice and catch the cheerful tone.

M. A. Baines

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Happy New Year to all of our Almanac readers! We hope your new year is “useful, with a pleasant degree of humor.”

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Reader Comments

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When Dose the New Year Start

I have always felt that the logical date for New Year's Day should be the day after the winter solstice. After all, that is the day that the days start getting longer and everything starts over.