The countdown begins, the clock strikes midnight, we all cheer and cuddle and kiss friends and family to celebrate the start of a new year. (Or, if you’re on the road, you kiss and cuddle total strangers). But why is it such an event? The pressure, the build-up, the inevitable anti-climax? The broken resolutions, the resulting guilt and frustration? Is it really worth all the emotional bother?
Personally, I love New Year, not so much New Year’s Eve, but New Year itself. It symbolises a new start, a clean slate, a chance to put past hurts behind you and begin positively with the next chapter of your life. But really, why should a date matter? Even more so when the date is flawed and our whole calendar is a corrupt twisting of older methods of time telling.
When you’re travelling I believe that you’re even more likely to bump into people who open your eyes to new ideas. This whole calendar concept was only really introduced to me a week or so ago when I asked a new friend how important Christmas and New Year were to him. ‘What’s more important,’ he said, ‘is that we’ve just had the longest day of the year, the summer solstice’ (I’m in New Zealand). He argued that the modern calendar is a bastardised way of organising the year that has little to do with the circular pattern of life during a solar/lunar year and more to do with politics, religion and self-interest. I did some basic research…
THE ROMAN CALENDAR
The old Roman calendar was ‘originally was determined by the cycles of the moon and the seasons of the agricultural year‘ and used to be ten months in length with an extra little bit for the winter period. The first day of the year was March 1st and if you know a little Latin then it makes sense that October, for example, would be the eighth month and December the tenth. Some time around 600 B.C. a Roman ruler called Pompilius introduced January and February in order to account for the preious gap in the calendar for winter, and made January the first month of the year. It was all still a bit unpredictable: some years had twelve months, others thirteen, and a year averaged between 355 and 378 days. Pompilus is supposedly also responsible for focusing the calendar on religion rather than landwork but more surprising is that the priests of the Roman Empire are said to have ‘exploited the calendar for political ends, inserting days and even months into the calendar to keep the politicians they favored in office’. So overall, a bit of an odd system and one that was most definitely fluid and corrupt.
THE JULIAN CALENDAR
Julius Ceaser got a bit frustrated by this random system and decided to do a reform that was more structured: a twelve month calendar that was based somewhat on the solar year and where each month would have either 30 or 31 days, apart from February – the end of the year – which would have to be shortened to align with the solar system. Not wanting to be forgotten, in 44 B.C. Julius Ceaser changed the month Quintilis to Julius (July), a trick later employed by the emperor Augustus who changed Sextilis to, you guessed it, Augustus (August). All a bit self-indulgent. Augustus also supposedly wanted his month to be a full month, so after some shifting around, 31 days were assigned to the month of August. But there were still some problems with the Julian calendar, namely discrepancies when compared with the solar year that meant every few years everything went out of sync. Again, a bit of a flawed system.
THE GREGORIAN CALENDER
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII devised a calendar that was much more in tune with the solar year and had a better ‘formula for calculating leap years’, but the UK decided to be sticklers and it was only in 1752 following the British Calendar Act of 1751 that Brits finally aligned with their neighbouring countries, losing 11 days in the process. It was also here that the beginning of the legal year is said to have been moved from March to January.
So surely the Gregorian, our current system, is a good system? But why can’t we work with something a bit more solar or lunar orientated? ‘The Muslim calendar is the only purely lunar calendar in widespread use today’ with religious celebrations occurring in relation to the moon’s waxing and waning and therefore the corresponding dates on a Gregorian calendar are pretty randomised. The Chinese calendar, as another example, is lunisolar, based on the cycles of the moon where ‘the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February’. Better systems more in tune with the earth and its surroundings?
Back to the present and my travels. For New Year’s Eve I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering up near Whangerei, New Zealand, where I played beer pong and got tipsy and did a bit of bad dancing. All this discussion and research had left me a bit confused. Is it just because as human beings we crave a definite timeline as opposed to a more natural rhythm? Is counting days in such a methodical way necessary? What’s wrong with going by nature instead? Is New Year, as we know it, really New Year? March does indeed seem to make more sense to me with the onset of spring and the bursting through of plants, and lambs being born, and just that ‘new start’ feeling you get at that time of the year.
So was I going to turn down an invite to a little party because of new knowledge and a sense that our calendar was created in order to pander to political and religious and social activities rather than the natural ebb and flow of life, and as a result is a bit of a corrupt system? And that therefore New Year was a bit of a farce? No, of course not. It would have just been bad form. I went, I saw in the New Year and I conquered some time demons.
So, what the hell. Happy New Year. Really.