From the Romans to modern times | Daily News

Enduring cultural importance of January and Janus:

From the Romans to modern times

Drawing kolam on Thai Pongal day.
Drawing kolam on Thai Pongal day.

January is a time of new beginnings, a chance to start fresh and set goals for the year ahead. This cultural significance is reflected in the origins and symbolism of the Roman god Janus, after whom the month of January is named.

The modern observance of January and the cultural legacy of Janus can still be seen today. January remains the first month of the year in modern calendars, and the celebration of New Year's Day on January 1 has its roots in ancient Roman traditions. The incorporation of Janus-themed elements, such as the use of two-faced masks and the depiction of the god in art and literature, can also be seen in modern celebrations of the New Year.

Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions, was a prominent figure in Roman mythology and religion. He was often depicted with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other towards the future, representing his role as a guardian of doorways and a symbol of change.

The Roman calendar, which was originally based on lunar cycles, placed January at the beginning of the year. The month was named after Janus, who was considered the protector of gates and doorways. The name ‘January’ comes from the Roman god's name, which is derived from the Latin word for door, ‘ianua’.

Myth and symbolism in Roman culture

In Roman mythology, Janus was a primal god, one of the first deities worshipped by the ancient Romans. He was associated with various aspects of daily life, including beginnings, time, and duality. Janus was often invoked at the start of important events and was considered the patron of doors and gateways, as well as of transitions and change.

The symbolism of Janus was closely tied to his role as a god of beginnings and transitions. His two faces were believed to be able to look both backward and forward, representing his ability to see the past and the future. This symbolism has been incorporated into various forms of art and literature, including Renaissance-era paintings and modern poetry.

In addition to his association with doors and gates, Janus was also linked to the concept of time. The Roman calendar originally consisted of only ten months, with the year beginning in March.

However, the calendar was later expanded to include January and February, with January being placed at the beginning of the year. This placement was likely due to the symbolic significance of Janus as a god of beginnings and transitions.

Two important festivals that take place in January are the Chinese New Year and Thai Pongal.

From dumplings to dragon dances

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year, is a major holiday in China and other countries with a large population of Chinese people. It is a time for families to come together, clean their homes, and participate in traditions and celebrations.

The holiday is based on the lunar calendar, and the date changes each year. Chinese New Year falls on January 22, and the celebrations usually last for about two weeks, with the main celebrations occurring on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

During Chinese New Year, people decorate their homes with red lanterns and paper cuttings, exchange gifts, and participate in lion and dragon dances. The holiday is also marked by the consumption of special foods, such as dumplings and fish, which are believed to bring good luck. Chinese New Year is a time of renewal and a chance to start the year off on a positive note.

Harvest festival of gratitude

Thai Pongal is another festival that takes place in January. It is a harvest festival celebrated in the Tamil Nadu state of India, as well as by Tamil people around the world. It is a four-day festival that marks the beginning of the sun's journey northward, signalling the end of the winter solstice.

On the first day of Thai Pongal, people thank the sun god for the abundance of the previous year's harvest and pray for a successful harvest in the coming year. They also decorate their homes with kolams (colourful geometric patterns drawn with rice flour), and prepare special foods, such as sweetened rice and milk, to offer to the gods. The second day of the festival is dedicated to cows, which are seen as symbols of wealth and prosperity in Hinduism.

The third day is known as Mattu Pongal, and it is a time for families to visit each other and exchange gifts. The fourth and final day is called ‘Kaanum Pongal,’ and it is a day for relaxation and enjoyment. Thai Pongal is a time of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings of the past year.

Both these festivals bring people together and provide a chance to reflect on the past and look forward to the future.

As we begin a New Year, we can look back on the cultural legacy of Janus, as well as the enduring significance of important festivals like Chinese New Year and Thai Pongal, which take place in January and reflect the themes of new beginnings and transitions.

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