We live on a beautiful, blue-green planet called Earth. Within our solar system, we’re located three planets away from our star, the Sun, at a distance of around 93 million miles, depending on the time of year. Our planet is constantly spinning on its axis, making one rotation every 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds. The speed of rotation varies by latitude, with the fastest rotation taking place at the equator, at 1,037 miles per hour. This spinning globe orbits the sun at a speed of 67,000 miles per hour. The Sun itself is also in orbit, circling around the supermassive black hole (and its little black hole buddies) in the center of our galaxy. Whirling at a pace of around 200 kilometers per second, our humble little solar system will take about 230 million earth-years to make one pass around the Milky Way. Nothing being sacred, even our galaxy is in motion, hurtling through space toward the Andromeda galaxy, on course for a galactic collision 4 billion years from now. It’s like we’re on a fucked-up fair ride, but we can’t feel it because we’re all in motion along with it, like lettuce in a salad spinner. One day in the very, very, very distant future (10 trillion years or so from now), all this motion will come to a standstill that scientists call the Big Freeze, resulting in a permanent nothingness in which all motion, light, time, and temperature will cease to exist. But until then, the universe is one big carnival, and we’re along for the ride.
So how do we choose the exact day on which we celebrate the New Year? What’s the real significance of January 1 when the entire universe is in a constant state of motion? Out of our 365.25 annual rotations around the Sun, which particular rotation is the one? In trying to answer this question, I was delighted to discover that there isn’t any significance at all. Each human culture has chosen different days for varying reasons for as long as we’ve been aware of the passage of time (or, at least, for as long as we’ve been able to record it).
Throughout history, the beginning of each new year was celebrated at different times, depending on the calendar being used. The earliest recorded New Year celebrations took place in ancient Babylon around 6,000 years ago. On the first full moon after the vernal equinox, a day with equal amounts of daytime and nighttime, they celebrated the planting of the coming year’s crops in an eleven-day festival during which they feasted, worshipped statues, and slapped their king until he cried (Babylonians knew how to partaaayyyyyyyyy). The Attic calendar chose the first full moon after the summer solstice to get down, while other ancient Greek calendars selected autumn as their yearly time of renewal. The ancient Egyptians oriented their New Year around the flooding of the Nile, which happens around July. Even in modern times, the New Year is celebrated at different points throughtout the year. Chinese New Year is celebrated anywhere between January 21 and February 20, depending on a given year’s lunar cycle (2019 is the Year of the Pig, in case you were wondering). Celebrations for the Islamic New Year can vary depending on which country is doing the celebrating. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated at the beginning of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar, which translates to either September or October in the Gregorian calendar.
Speaking of the Gregorian calendar, its origins explain a lot about why we celebrate our current New Year on January 1. It all started with Julius Caesar. Before his reforms, pagans celebrated their New Year on the vernal equinox. The exact length of the observed year wasn’t set in stone, and could be either shortened or lengthened depending on whether or not it served a sitting Roman magistrate’s political career. As a result, there was a lot of confusion about when the year actually began. Caesar wasn’t going to let that slide on his watch, and so he instituted a calendar system that was based on the solar cycle thanks to his boy Sosigenes, who convinced him that the sun was a more logical way to measure the passage of time than by the cycles of the moon. In 45 B.C., when Caesar chose to implement his new calendar, he had to add two arbitrary months to the “year” in order to get everything on track, maintaining January’s status as the first month on the calendar. The system was further refined by Pope Gregory XIII, after which the Gregorian calendar is named. His Holiness wanted to fix a miscalculation that was causing the date of Easter to fall further and further away from the spring equinox. The widespread adoption of Christianity was in part successful because it made a habit of planning its religious celebrations to coincide with preexisting pagan festivals as a conversion tactic (the celebrations of which absorbed some of the pagan activities they were associated with), and Gregory XIII didn’t want a silly little mathematical mistake to ruin a perfectly good trick. Why fix what isn’t broke? So His boy Dionysius came up with a workable method of calculating the date of Easter, which is still in use today. (This is why we measure time in the West using the B.C./A.D. [or BCE/CE] system; Christian beliefs were baked into the very essence of the way time was measured. Gregory XIII’s conversion game was strong.)
No matter which day a New Year celebration may fall upon, it’s clearly a man-made concept. I live in North America, so January 1 it is for me. But I feel glad to celebrate it in the dark of winter; there’s magic in darkness. (Plus the earth is near its perihelion, which means we’re about as close to our star as we ever get, and isn’t that alone cause to celebrate?) I’m not a pagan but I love the idea of the winter solstice, which passed by a handful of days ago. After the darkest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, it feels right to embrace the birth of something new. Surviving one more year of life is always something to cheer. As the sun begins its annual rhythm of expansion, I find it natural to take stock of who that sun will be shining upon in the coming year. Who am I right now, and who would I like to be? Which steps can I take to help myself become that person, and what’s standing in my way?
I never set New Year’s resolutions, mostly because they’re stupid and don’t work. But I do plan on spending some time with myself this year, and asking her who she’d like to be. I think of it as planting seeds, which need some nurturing in order to grow. As a farmer uses the winter to plan next season’s crops, I’m giving thought to which seeds I’d like to plant in my heart. We’ve each been given a little patch of earth, ours to tend for this one brief lifetime. How we grow our garden will determine the quality of our harvest.
During these pitch-dark days, may we look to the rising of the light. It only gets brighter from here.