Happy New Year
For just over 1,000 years, March 25—known in church terms as the Annunciation, for the day the Angel Gabriel visited Mary—was New Year's Day. Some countries, including England, held out until the mid-18th century to change New Year's back to Julius Caeser's date of January 1. At least that was the story in the Western parts of what had been the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire's calendar started September 1, as they calculated the creation as occuring on September 1, 5509 b.c.
Our current calendar with the dating of years to Jesus' birth was the creation of Dionysius Exiguus (roughly translating as Dennis the Insignificant) a 6th century monk from present-day Romania. He created what we now call the Julian Calendar (the one we use now) as a part of his work in fixing the date of Easter on a 532-year cycle. Dionysius was not precise on which year he thought Jesus' birth took place as no year was labeled Zero. Either 1 a.d. or 1 b.c. are possible. Earlier historians had deduced what is now 2 b.c. and modern scholars think that 3 b.c. is most likely for the year of Jesus' birth.
Years in other cultures
The civil calendar of India began with the the Saka Era—King Salivahana's accession to the throne. In the Saka calendar, the year 2006 a.d. is 1929. The other popular calendar in Hindu culture is Vikram era which started with the coronation of King Vikramaditya. In the Vikram system, 2006 a.d. is 2064.
On the Chinese Calendar, we are now in the year 4703. In the Jewish calendar, which like the Byzantine one, purported to date from creation and is now in the year 5766. In the Islamic calendar, which dates from Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina, the current year is 1426. Buddhist calculate dates on a calendar beginning with the traditional date of the Buddha's death at the age of 80, making it currently 2548. Though remember, all of these calendars follow a different year and so during 2006, we will turn to the Buddhist year 2549, and so on for the other calendars referrenced above.
We need a system of calculating dates to give us a common point of reference. For Christians, what is significant about Dennis the Insignificant's work is that he moved most of the world to calculating time based on the Incarnation, rather than on the beginning of the reign of Julius Caesar or some other wordly emperor. From any perspective, it would have been unthinkable at the time of Jesus' birth or crucifixion that anyone would even remember the Jewish Rabbi Jesus 2000 years later, much less calculate their days based on the year of his birth (even if the system is off 2-3 years). Dates, especially New Year's Day, are reminders that His life has marked our lives in significant ways.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor + King of Peace Episcopal Church