New Year, same old calendar
For a holiday ostensibly about new beginnings and a fresh start, our New Year celebration is remarkably mired in the past.
See, the idea of starting a new calendar year on Jan. 1 is one of many aspects of our strange and arbitrary date keeping we owe to the Romans in general and Julius Caesar in particular.
Many early societies tied their new year celebrations to either the winter solstice — when the days begin to grow longer — or one of the equinoxes — points of balance between summer and winter.
The early Roman calendar, on the other hand, started things off on the first of March. They later tacked January and February onto the beginning, screwing up the numbering system for September, October, November, and December.
When Julius Caesar formalized his calendar in 46 BC, he stuck with January as the initial month, perhaps because of the deity Janus’s association with beginnings and transitions, or perhaps because it’s when consuls took office.
For centuries, even areas which utilized the calendar continued to celebrate the New Year on other dates, particularly those associated with Christian holidays.
By the time the Julian calendar refined into the Gregorian calendar in 1582, however, Jan. 1 was default for most of the West. Today, it’s celebrated worldwide.
Why the history lesson?
After all, plenty of our holidays are arbitrary, and gain meaning from tradition and association. Still, I don’t think it completely ruins the fun to keep an open mind and remember that the old way isn’t always the best way.
There’s no such thing as a perfect calendar. Days, months and years are all obvious astronomical units that don’t quite fit together.
In the West, we’re further bogged down by the Egyptian 24 hour day, the Babylonian 60 minute hour, and the Biblical seven day week.
It’s a lot of strange ratios to accommodate, and a lot of math and scheduling would be much easier with decimal time, particularly in the computer era.
The only serious attempt at decimal time, however, was the French Republican Calendar which only lasted 12 years.
I’m not advocating an immediate overhaul of our whole calendar, although there have been several interesting tweaks proposed over the years.
The World Calendar, for instance, is designed to always begin on a Sunday and end on a Saturday.
It consequently simplifies planning that involves both days of the week and of the month (day-of-the-week holidays like Thanksgiving or Strawberry Days, for instance, would have fixed dates, while your birthday — assuming it wasn’t removed in the change — would always fall on the same day of the week).
Those who still use paper calendars could use the same one every year, instead of digging up something from 1988 for 2016 or saving one until 2044.
Some designs take it a step further. The International Fixed Calendar uses 13 months of 28 days, thus aligning each month with the week as well. Since that doesn’t divide terribly well into four, six, or even two seasons, Symmetry454 takes a different tact by having some months with 28 days and some with 35, as well as an occasional leap week at the end of December.
Again, if your birthday is on the 30th, you probably don’t like the idea of trimming March down to 28 days.
Moreover, we no longer live in an era in which one person can simply decree a calendar change. Any such movement would face public resistance and international red tape.
All we can really do, as we write our resolutions and celebrate a blank slate, is appreciate the irony.
Will Grandbois would like to express his sympathy to current and future leaplings. He can be reached at 384-9105 or email@example.com.
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