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New Year's is an arbitrary `starting line'

As billions of people prepare noisemakers, paper hats, firecrackers and booze for the world's most widely celebrated holiday, ponder a question:

Why should New Year's Day occur on Jan. 1?One year is the time it takes Earth to make a complete revolution around the sun. What is it about Earth's journey through space that makes one trip end and another begin on Jan. 1?

Is there a starting line in space, for goodness' sake?

Brace for some surprises.

"Not many people realize it, but the timing - Jan. 1 for New Year's - is completely arbitrary," Norman Lindhjem said in an interview. "New Year's Day could just as easily occur in March."

Lindhjem, director of the International World Calendar Association (IWCA), paused a second. "Well, you know, for a long time, New Year's Day WAS in March. And in December. And April. And June."

Even today, various countries, cultures and groups observe New Year's Day on other dates that occur in every month of the year.

Jan. 28, 1998, will be the Chinese New Year (Sun Nin) and the Vietnamese New Year (Tet). India will observe New Year on March 22, 1998. The Islamic New Year begins on April 27, 1998, the Armenian New Year is July 9, 1998, and the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) observation is Sept. 21-22, 1998.

The date for New Year's Day is a product of humanity's effort to keep track of the passage of time with calendars.

If Lindhjem and a little-known band of other "calendar reformers" have their way, the situation could change again. The whole world could embrace a new calendar with its own approach to New Year's.

Humanity's celebration of the new year began about 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia, which included modern Iraq. They celebrated New Year's on March 25, for 11 days.

"Late March actually is a logical choice for beginning of a new year," said John Kremer, author of "Celebrate Today," a 1996 book (Prima Publishers) that describes 4,200 holidays.

"It is the time of year that spring begins and new crops are planted. Jan. 1, on the other hand, has no astronomical or agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary."

The Babylonians also invented one of the first calendars, which was adopted in other countries and popularized March 25 as the New Year.

Since there were no clocks, the ancients relied on natural units of time such as the apparent movements of the sun, moon and stars.

They used three basic units. One was the solar day, the time from one sunrise to another, the time for Earth to make one complete rotation on its axis, or 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds.

Another was the lunar month, the period between successive full moons, the time it takes the moon to revolve once around Earth. It averages 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 seconds. The other was the solar year, which consists of 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds.

Trying to divide the solar year into months of 24-hour days led to all kinds of confusion and inaccuracies. Twelve lunar months of 29.5 days results in a year of about 354 days, 11 days shorter than the true solar year. Thirteen lunar months would make a year last about 383.5 days, about 18.5 days longer than the solar year.

Use such a calendar long enough, and it would get out of sequence with the seasons. Summer might begin in January and winter in August.

Efforts to keep the calendar and seasons in sequence led to adoption and junking of calendars that used many different dates for the start of the New Year.

The Roman Empire kept March 25 as New Year's Day. But Roman rulers constantly tampered with the calendar, and it got further and further out of synchronization with the solar year.

To wipe out the pre-existing error and realign the calendar and seasons, Julius Caesar ordered that 46 B.C. would have 445 days.

The Julian calendar was more accurate than any previous calendar. Its year was only about 11 minutes longer than a solar year. But over 1,500 years, the error accumulated. By 1580, spring began on March 11, which is 10 days earlier than the vernal equinox.

In 1582, the Gregorian calendar, developed by astronomers working for Pope Gregory XIII, came to the rescue. Gregory wiped out the accumulated error by ordering that 10 days be dropped from October. Oct. 5, 1582, became Oct. 15.

He also ordered a permanent correction to keep calendar and solar year more in sequence. His solution: Give February one extra day in century years divisible by 400. Thus, February 1600 got an extra day, and February 2000, 2400, and 2800 will get one.

The Gregorian calendar reduced the difference between solar and calendar year to just 26 seconds.

Most European countries adopted the new calendar immediately. England and its colonies held out, and continued celebrating New Year's in March, until 1752.

All Eastern Orthodox churches continued using the Julian calendar until 1923. Some adopted a Revised Julian Calendar with a different leap year rule. Others stuck with the old calendar.

Other attempts at calendar reform - improving the Georgian calendar - occurred over the years. In the 1930s, for instance, a group called the World Calendar Association actually got the United Nations to consider a new calendar.

The so-called World Calendar had 13 months (the new month was "Sol"), and got endorsements from accountants, statisticians and business. The United States objected, and the U.N. dropped the whole idea.

The World Calendar would have changed the dates for widely celebrated holidays. The Fourth of July, for example, would have become the 17th of Sol.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Advantages of world calendar

- Every year is the same. Each year begins on Sunday, Jan. 1, and each working year on Monday, Jan. 2.

- Numbered days of the month always fall on the same weekdays, so a child born on Friday always celebrates birthdays on Friday. Election Day in the United States always would be on Nov. 7. All holidays would fall on the same day of the week.

- Statistical comparisons between quarters of the year would be easier since the year would divide into quarters of 91 days each. Each quarter begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday.