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Lunar New Year: A Chinese dragon dance celebration at Nan Hua Temple (PHOTO: Hendrik van den Berg  CC BY 3.0)


In 2018 the Chinese celebrate New Year on February 16. It changes slightly from year to year because China has a lunar calendar that keeps in phase with the seasons. Each month starts with a new moon, and ever since a calendar reform in 104 BC they have taken the first month of the year to start with the second new moon after the winter equinox. Diaries based on Western Europe or the USA show this to be February 15 this year, but the Chinese calendar is based on Beijing where it will already be the 16th.

For any culture using a lunar calendar, the new year will occur on varying dates in our standard international calendar because a seasonal year does not contain a whole number of lunar months. It contains between 12 and 13 (12 months is about 354.37 days), so to keep in phase with the seasons some years must contain 13 lunar months rather than 12. The Islamic calendar ignores this difficulty by having 12 lunar months every year, which is why the holy month of Ramadan starts about 11 days earlier each year — this year it will begin on the evening of May 15.

Judaism also has a lunar calendar, months starting with the new crescent of the moon, as in the Islamic system. A new crescent can only occur in the evening, which is why Jewish and Islamic months and days start in the evening. Yet like the Chinese calendar the Jewish one keeps in phase with the seasons, some years having 12 months, some 13. Unlike China, however, the Jewish New Year begins in the autumn and is associated with the harvest — the next one starts on the evening of September 9, 2018.

Early calendars would have been lunar, and 12 months per year suggests this was the origin of our modern international calendar — indeed, the very word month is related to the word for moon. It started with the Roman Republic, where a later tradition claimed the early kings of Rome created a lunar calendar, although records from 400 BC show it had already lost its connection with the moon’s phases. However, its 12 months retained the lunar feature of adding up to 355 days (354 is closer but the Romans had a preference for odd numbers), and to keep it in phase with the seasonal year they added extra days from time to time, inserting them into February. The decision on whether or not to do this was the job of a committee subject to political influence, and by the time Julius Caesar decided to fix the calendar it was 80 days out of phase with the seasonal year.

To reform it he created a 365-day year, using the same month names, with a leap year every four years, and extended the year 46 BC to get back in phase with the seasons. This new “Julian calendar” started running on the new terms in 45 BC, the year before Caesar’s assassination.
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