Earlier this week, we drove past a church sign that said, “Get Thee Behind Me, 2020.” I laughed, but my 14-year-old, Sparkler, was annoyed.

“I don’t get why people are making such a big deal out of it being 2021,” she grumbled. “It’s not like everything changes just because we passed an arbitrary date.”

She did have a point. New Year’s Day is a date that we’ve imbued with significance. It doesn’t have any inherent quality of “beginnings”—not like spring or even a new moon. How did we even decide on this day in the first place?

All I had to do was Google a few quick questions. But no. I’m a homeschool mom, and this sure did look like a good little homeschool project.

I wrote a few questions and then asked the kids to find the answers for me. I pitched it as a quick, low-pressure research project. They could use Google and didn’t even have to write their answers in complete sentence form. And of course they jumped to it, because we’re homeschoolers!

Oh, and also because I bribed them.

Well, it was more of a reward system. For each question they answered, they earned $1 toward a treat of their choice. It didn’t take them long to realize that a little effort would earn them a $5 pizza from Little Caesar’s. Nothing motivates my kids like pizza, and that’s when they jumped to it.

Results were interesting on two different levels. First, we all learned a little bit about our own culture, and secondly, our New Year’s roots go very deep, it turns out.

Below are the questions I asked, and I’ve collected the information they gave me for the answers:

  1. When did we begin celebrating January 1 as the new year?
    In 46 or 45 BC, Julius Caesar consulted with astronomers and scientists to correct the current calendar, which was slowly drifting out of sync with the sun. He instituted a new calendar and set January 1st as first day.
  2. What significance does January have for a new year?
    January is significant because its name comes from the two-faced Roman god Janus, a god of gateways and beginnings. One of his faces looked into the past and one into the future.
  3. When did the practice of “New Year's Resolutions” begin?
    This practice possibly dates as far back as ancient Babylon, where people would promise to the gods that they would “return borrowed objects and pay their debts.” They didn't do it in January, but in March when they planted crops. The Romans made similar promises to Janus.
  4. What other dates have served as New Year's Days in Western history?
    Medieval Europeans suggested other days with more Christian significance, including December 25 (Jesus' birth) or March 25 (when Gabriel spoke to Mary). In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar to correct yet another drift out of sync with the sun. This calendar restored January 1 as New Year's Day, and it’s the one we use today.
  5. What other dates do other countries/religions observe as a new year?
    The Chinese calendar used to be a lunar-based one (until China adopted the Gregorian calendar), so its new year could fall anywhere from January 11 to February 20. The Indian celebration of Diwali is a New Year's festival that falls between mid-October and mid-November. In Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Ukraine, the Eastern Orthodox Church observes the new year on January 14. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, falls between September and October each year. The Persian New Year falls at the vernal equinox, March 21 or 22.
  6. When, in your opinion, would it make sense to celebrate New Year's Day?
  7. Gamerboy: “If I had to change it, I'd probably move it to the Spring equinox, like the Iranians, because that's when everything starts back up again after winter.”

    Sparkler: “I have two answers for what would make more sense as a New Year's Day. The Spring equinox is an astronomical event that marks a definite springtime, and spring is the season where things begin to rebirth. If we stick with our current calendar, however, I think March or April 1st would make sense. It's the same idea of spring being a season of rebirth, just adjusted to fit our time system. The regrowing of plants even fits thematically with resolutions.”

    Ranger: “The day after Christmas. It feels like Christmas is such an important day that I feel like it should be the end of the year.”

I enjoyed reading the information they found. On a deeper level, however, I got to see how each student approached the assignment.

Gamerboy (18) cut-and-pasted answers straight from Wikipedia, but he made sure to cite the links.

Sparkler (14) didn’t just cut-and-paste, but wrote her answers in a fuller, more thoughtful way. She also included citations.

Ranger (11) liked the idea of answering all the questions and earning a treat, but he was out of his depth. So I worked with him, showing him the first, basic steps to gathering information: copying the question into Google and cut-and-pasting his answers into a document. Later he’ll learn to look up various sites, reword his information, and cite his sources—but this was a painless introduction to online research.

All in all, the project was a success, and we all have pizza in our future. As for Sparkler, she thought some more about people’s excitement for the New Year and softened her opinion.

“I was thinking—even if it’s just an arbitrary day, if the idea of a new year gives people hope, then it’s a good thing.”

—Sara