Double-faced Caspar de Robles as Janus on the dike near Harlingen, Fryslân, Netherlands
On 31 December at 12.00 p.m. at midnight the old year ends and at the same time it is 0.00 a.m. of the 1st of January and a new year begins. At least this is so in the Western countries and most of the rest of the world. This has not always been so. In the Roman Republic, till Gaius Julius Caesar seized power, the Roman calendar was quite complicated and begun at the vernal equinox, so in March. That is why December – now the twelfth month – actually means “tenth month”. The old Roman calendar was not only complicated but it fell also out of sync with the sun. Therefore in 48 B.C. Caesar decided to reform it and moreover he made the first of January the first day of the year. The year remained to begin at this date until in 567 A.D. the Council of Tours decided to replace it by a date with more religious significance, although 1 January could be observed as the day that Jesus had been circumcised. The new first day became 25 March, the Feast of Annunciation. However, also the Julian calendar fell out of sync with the sun after many centuries, and when in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar again, he re-established also 1 January as the first day of the year.
Julius Caesar did not only introduce a new calendar, he gave also a new name to the first month of the year: January. He did this in honour of Janus, the Roman god of change and, what is especially relevant in this case, the god of beginnings. Janus has two faces: one face looks back to the past and one face looks forward to the future. Which god could better symbolize the new year and give his name to the first month of the year?Although Janus stand for a new beginning, the Romans have well seen that each beginning is double by giving Janus two faces. For where there is a beginning there is also an end. Even in the case of the Big Bang, one can wonder what was there before it took place. And when a new year begins, we take leave of the old year. We can look back to what happened at every arbitrary moment, but we do it especially at the end of the year. We think back full of nostalgia to the good moments, and we are glad that a new year starts when we think of the bad moments, hoping that the new year will be better. Therefore we can say that Janus, seen as the turn of the year, stands for farewell and for hope. But the hope of the first of January is the farewell of the last day of the year twelve months later. Although this sounds rather cynical, I don’t mean it that way, for we need hope! And when we are at the end of the year, we hope to be able to say farewell to a good year. It’s true that Nietzsche said that “hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” (in Human, All-Too-Human) But he said also something else, namely that “strong hope is a much greater stimulant to life than any single realized joy could be.” (in The Antichrist) Without hope we cannot make a good year of the year to come. Without hope we cannot overcome the setbacks, which certainly will happen – hoping that they will not be as worse as torments, physically or psychologically –. And when then this year has ended after 365 days, we can say “so farewell hope”, hoping that the year was a good one, and that we don’t need to say with John Milton “farewell fear, farewell remorse: all good to me is lost.”