Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve - by one calendar, at least

It's New Year's Eve, and my husband Richard and I are not out partying. It's not so much that we're not as sociable as we used to be, or that we don't stay up late much, or that we're getting old. All of those are true to some extent, but they're not the main reason we're not out partaking in the revels marking the end of one year and the imminent arrival of a new one.

The main reason is the timing. For me, the changing of the year has already happened, on winter solstice. The night of December 21 was the longest night of the year and the days have lengthened noticeably since then. So since I've already celebrated the turning of the solar year, it seems to me like this New Year thing is old news.

The business of marking January 1st as the beginning of a new calendar year is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. The ancient Romans apparently began a new numbered year on January 1 (although that day actually varied a good bit since the years weren't precisely calculated), but even as late as the Middle Ages, different European countries began the new year on dates varying from Christmas to Easter to the first of September. The standardization of the year and its opening day as January 1 was the result of the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII) between 1582 (when the Pope ordained the new calendar) and 1752 (when renegade countries like Britain and Scotland finally got around to adopting it).

The adoption of the Gregorian calendar was quite handy on the whole, since it corrected some serious issues the Church had with the Julian calendar, including the fact that the day of Easter drifted around too much, and the aggregate errors in year length required large adjustments from time to time.

But the late medieval astronomers and mathematicians who devised the Gregorian calendar deviated from the solar calendar in one respect important to me: rather than have the new year begin on the day after winter solstice, which is when the Northern Hemisphere turns toward light, life and spring, they set it as a week after Christmas, so as not to distract from the religious holiday.

No wonder then that the official New Year's Day seems a bit anti-climatic to me: the solar year ended on winter solstice, a week and a half ago.

Still, Richard and I will each light a candle tonight, and looking at that flame that represents light in the darkness, new beginnings, hope and life, we'll say our resolutions for this new year, solar or Gregorian or whatever.

Happy New Year, no matter what calendar you use!

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