English New Year - Dr Geoffrey Benjamin

“In all traditions that celebrate the new year, it marks the restarting of the calendar. However, traditional calendars vary: some follow the solar cycle; some follow a lunar cycle; others combine the two cycles together. The Christian calendar, for example, combines a lunar Easter with a solar Christmas.”

“There is an inherent lack of coordination between the solar and lunar cycles, because the solar year actually lasts for 365-and-a-quarter days and the lunar month lasts 29-and-a-half days. Each solar year therefore consists of 12.38 rather than 12 lunar months. Those extra days and fragments of a day mean that every few years the lunar and solar cycles get so far out of sync that an extra day or even an extra month has to be inserted to bring them back together again. For both farmers, administrators and modern city dwellers, it is essential that their working calendar should have a fixed character, as well as remaining linked to the passage of the seasons.”

“[T]he vast majority of earlier populations were able only to observe the moon’s phases, as they lacked accurate means to observe the sun’s orbital changes. It is not surprising then, that lunar-based celebrations are easier to organise than solar-based ones. Through cultural inertia, this attachment to the moon has continued to affect the calendrical calculations of most of the world’s big religions – which by their very character, emphasise tradition.”


“[W]hy should the New Year – lunar or solar – be celebrated? In practice, the moment at which the new year commences is not directly observable by ordinary people. It has to be marked by an appropriate ceremony or ritual that acts to separate the new year from the one that has just passed. Such acts of separation and re-commencement are very familiar to anthropologists, who call them ‘passage rites’.”

To view video recording of Dr Benjamin's speech, click here