Our English word “January” is derived from the Latin “Januarius,” or the month of the Roman deity Janus. In Latin, “ianus” literally means a gate or arched passageway. Our word “janitor,” a “keeper of the doorway” comes from the same root, as does the name of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, or “January River” (Rio’s bay was so named by Amerigo Vespucci because he discovered what he mistakenly thought was the estuary of a large river on January 1, 1502).
"Then sing, young hearts that are full of cheer,
With never a thought of sorrow;
The old goes out, but the glad young year
Comes merrily in tomorrow."
~ Emily Miller
Janus, God of Portals
The ancient Romans worshipped Janus as the god of doors, gates, and all sorts of portals. Because he is representative of both the future and the past, Janus is depicted with two faces, each gazing in opposite directions. Sometimes Janus is shown with one face bearded and one face smooth, probably symbolizing the sun and the moon. Janus bears a key is his right hand, a symbol of opening and closing. In some depictions, he holds the Roman numerals CCC, or 300, in one hand, and LXV, or 65, in the other, representing the days in a year. In myth, Janus was regarded as a beneficent ruler who ushered in a time of prosperity. He was worshipped both at the start of the new year and at other times of change or transition: planting, harvest, marriage, birth and the maturing of youth. Janus was invoked before any other god upon the start of a new undertaking. Ancient Romans believed that Janus opened the gates of heaven each morning, and closed them at night. Because the beginning of each day, month and year was believed to be sacred to Janus, on New Year’s Day, people would exchange gifts of coins bearing a likeness of the two-faced god.
The month of January was added to the Roman calendar in the seventh century B.C. by the emperor Numa Pompilius. Despite January’s antiquity as the first month of the year, January 1 was not always regarded as a day of new year's celebration. Because the Christian Church disapproved of pagan celebrations, it declared March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the new year. Even so, English popular calendars and almanacs still followed the Julian calendar, and January 1 was restored as the official start of the new year in the calendar reform of 1751.
"January brings the snow,
Makes our feet and fingers glow."
~ Sara Coleridge
The ancient Saxons called the first month of the year “Wulf-monath” -- an evocative name for the coldest season of the year when starving wolves might be compelled to invade villages and attack humans. Another Saxon name for the season was “Aefter-Yula,” or “after Christmas.” Charlemagne called January “Wintarmanoth.” The Finnish designate the first month as “tammikuu,” meaning “month of the oak” or “month of the heart of winter;” in Czech, January is “leden” or “ice month.”
The birthstone for the month of January is the garnet, whose name comes from the Latin “granatus,” meaning “seed-like,” since the stone was thought resemble the vibrant red seeds of the pomegranate fruit. Although the most familiar garnet color is deep red, the stone can also be pink, green, purple, yellow or orange. Garnets were thought to protect the wearer from sickness and accidents, and impart the characteristics of constancy and fidelity. The flower of January is the fragrant, clove-scented carnation or Dianthus. The Latin name carnation comes from “carnis,” meaning “flesh,” a reference to the pinkness of the bloom. The heavenly fragrance of the flower inspired the Greeks to name the plant “dianthus” or “divine flower.” Long-lasting in a bouquet or corsage and available in a wide variety of colors and sizes, the carnation is one of the most popular flowers in the world as well as one of the oldest-cultivated.
The alternate flower symbol for the month of January is the snowdrop or Galanthus. The lovely nodding white flowers of this bulb make an appropriate choice for the coldest month of the year, since they appear before almost any other spring bulb and can often be seen pushing up from the snow. In northern climates, however, the snowdrop’s usual blooming time is March or April.
Resource: All About the Months by Maymie R. Krythe, Harper and Row, 1966
"January" from Hone's Everyday Book, 1826, in the public domain, from Liam Quin's Pictures From Old Books website
Janus photo by Andre Durand
Roman coins photo by Sebastia Giralt
Garnet photo by Kimberly Simmons
Carnation photo by D. Sharon Pruitt
Galanthus nivalus photo by Tim Waters
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 5, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)