As the first month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, January has 31 days. The month of January didn’t always exist – in fact the Roman calendar only had 10 months with the year being only 304 days long, and the first month was March! Around 317 BC, the months of January and February were added, and its believed January became the first month around 153 BC.
January has a number of names across different lanuages and cultures, but it’s Charlemange’s designation of January as Wintarmanoth or ‘winter/cold month’ that is most representative of the season it is situated in in the northern hemisphere. January is deep winter in countries like North America, the UK, Europe and Russia, while in the southern hemisphere the days are hot and ideal for outdoor activies.
Turning your attention to the night sky, the constellation of Capricorn can be seen until 19 January, followed by Aquarius, the Latin name for ‘water-carrier’.
Of the most famous celebrations in January, New Years’ Day is arguably the most well known and widely celebrated. On the eve of this day, people celebrate the year that has passed with their friends and loved ones, while making resolutions for the year ahead.
In history, during the 16th-century Age of Exploration, Portuguese explorers happened upon a river in South America in 1502 they’d name Rio de Janeiro, or the River of January. Also in January, famous diarist Samuel Pepys began journaling life in London in the 1660s. His writing would provide detailed anecdotes of the Great Fire of London just six years later.
The 16th century was a time of upheaval in England, particularly between the monarchy and the Catholic Church. In 1535, for example, Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England following his break from Rome in order to achieve a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Having once been declared Defender of the Faith, he was now the head of a Church not recognised by Rome. He achieved his aims, however, and in January 1533, Henry VIII married his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The conflict and tension between Catholicism and Protestantism in England would cost many lives, especially when Henry’s daughter, Mary Tudor, a Catholic, took the throne upon his death in January 1547. Fast-forward to 1559, after the death of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, daugher of Anne Boleyn and a Protestant, would take the throne on 15 January. Her reign was marked by the ‘Middle Way’ of trying to find a compromise between Catholics and Protestants.
Moving into the 18th century, discord was growing in the American colonies, which were ruled by Britain. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published 500,000 copies of Common Sense an argument for why America should be independent. It heavily influenced the authors of the Declaration of Independence. It was during the Revolutionary war that General George Washington unveiled the Grand Union Flag (1776), which was the first national flag of America. A year later, in January 1777, Washington would go on to defeat the British at Princeton.
Looking at events of the 20th century, in January 1920, after the devastation of WWI, the League of Nations officially came into existence with the goal of resolving international disputes, reducing armaments, and preventing future wars. WWII would nevertheless take place just two decades later, and in 1942, twenty six countries signed the Declaration of the United Nations, reaffirming their opposition to the Axis powers and that they’d stand together in order to achieve peace.
The late 20th century also saw its share of conflict and bloodshed. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba after leading a revolution that drove out its dictator Batista. Castro then established a Communist dictatorship, which would pose a significant threat to the US in years to come. In fact, in January 1961, US President Eisenhower would break off diplomatic relations with Cuba just weeks before JFK became president and would have to navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Notable figures born in January include: Paul Revere (1735), Louis Braille (1809), Joan of Arc (1412), Elvis Presley (1935), Richard Nixon (1913), Benjamin Franklin (1706), Muhammad Ali (1942), Robert E. Lee (1807), Lewis Carroll (1832), Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859), Thomas Paine (1737), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929)