Time is weird. No, wait…that’s not right. Time isn’t weird; the way people mark time, that’s what’s weird. For a big chunk of Western history, the new year began on March 1. Which makes actual sense, if you think about it. I mean, that’s pretty much the season in which life begins to re-assert itself after winter has stopped tossing its weight around.
The reason — one of the reasons — we celebrate January 1 as the first day of the new year is because Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) decided people had fucked up the calendar, and he was just the boy to fix it. The problem was the early Roman calendar was a lunar calendar and only had ten months, ending in December (from the Latin word decem, meaning ten). Six of the months had thirty days, the other four had thirty-one. Why did some months have an extra day? Nobody really seems to know. There had to be a reason, but it was a long time ago — people forget. And really, who cares? It was fucked up, right? That’s why our boy Julius had to fix it.
Anyway, you can see the problem. The Roman year only had 304 official days. So they periodically added in a few extra days here and there (usually for political purposes), and they included a sort of block of unorganized winter days (and we all know what that’s like — it’s cold, it’s dark, one day is pretty much as miserable as another, and they all sort of blend together), and now and then they’d toss in an intercalary month of twenty-seven days. Sometimes twenty-eight days.
Really, considering how organized the Roman empire was, it was a terribly sloppy way to deal with time. Seasons got weird, holidays would begin too early or too late, harvest festivals would be scheduled before the harvest was ready. Nothing made any sense. Folks complained. So one day Julius said, “Okay, this shit really has to stop.” He hired a guy from Alexandria, Sosigenes, who told him, “Dude, let’s just do what the Egyptians do. Chuck that whole lunar thing and base the calendar on the sun.”
So that’s what they did. They had to create a few new months, and add in a few extra days, but they banged together a new calendar and in the year 45 BC they said, “This is the first day of January, named for Janus the god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and passages and doorways, the god of duality and transitions. And from now on, this is going to be the first day of the new year. Party on, people.”
The people partied on, but they still pretty much celebrated March 1 as beginning the new year. I mean, c’mon…tradition. And common sense. Who feels like celebrating in the middle of fucking winter? Even after the Roman Empire (and most of the Western world) went all over Christian, January 1 wasn’t treated as the beginning of the new year. Basically, it was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Which was a pretty big deal back then. You see, eight days after Jesus was born, his folks held a bris, a mohel nipped off his holy foreskin, they gave him his name, then everybody had a nice meal. Christians didn’t go in for all that; they skipped everything but the meal, but they still thought it was a fine thing to honor the day Jesus was separated from his foreskin. (Religion is also weird.)
Eventually the Julian calendar was supplanted (if ‘supplanted’ means what I think it means — I can’t be bothered to look it up) by the Gregorian calendar, and the Gregorian calendar got refined, and science weighed in, and time was more tightly ordered, and the world became more secular, and relatively few people wanted to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, and now when you buy a calendar at the book store it begins in January. It’s not entirely universal, but January 1 has generally become accepted as the first day of the year.
But it’s basically all bullshit. Thomas Mann had it right when he wrote:
Time has no divisions to mark its passing. There is never a thunderstorm to announce the beginning of a new month or year.
Really, this is just another day. A lot of folks still have to go to work, the cat’s litter box still needs to be cleaned and the dog needs to be walked, food has to be prepared and dishes have to be cleared away and washed, the snow will still fall and have to be cleared off the sidewalk, people will still be people, and you’re still the same person you were yesterday.
It’s just another day. Nothing has really changed. But so what? Sometimes what we need is a symbolic transition. A point at which we can tell ourselves this is where things begin to change. This point, right here, this is the line. From this point forward, things will be different.
Doesn’t have to be the beginning of the year. Could be a birthday. Or an anniversary. It doesn’t even have to be a temporal point. It could be any symbolic point. Once I get my own apartment, once I get my first real job, once I can run a 5K, once I graduate, once I get married, once I can afford a ticket to Spain, once I get my driver’s license, once I get divorced, once the kids have grown up and left home, from that point on things will be different. That decisive point, whatever it is, it’s worth celebrating.
Now I think of it, I’m beginning to believe there’s actually something admirable about reaching that point on the first day of January. There’s something defiant choosing a day in the middle of the least hospitable, most bitter, darkest fucking season of the year. There’s something cheeky about shouting out, “It’s January First, bitches…and it’s time to dance.”