Once again, just like clockwork, here comes New Year’s Day. Once again, in a wave sweeping across time zones, the world counts backward from 10. Revelers wish one another the best and mean it, at least for as long as the cup of kindness brimmed. Parades march across TV screens. In some balmy precinct the annual Football Game of the Century grunts to life. The uncertain future is welcomed in with a ritual paradoxically rigid and comfortable.
An odd holiday this. Jan. 1 is no great landmark in the course of human events; it is the anniversary of no remarkable birth, death or battle. The cosmos is not arranged in any particularly auspicious way. It is a date pulled out of a hat, an utterly arbitrary starting line for an eternal, repetitive relay race. The innocent baby takes the baton, sprints out with promise and hope, inevitably to stagger home a shattered old man, beaten down by 365 days of calamity, cruelty and chaos. And another baby invariably waits its turn.
As a matter of history, humankind has always had a tough time with the new year. Oh, the ancient Chinese, Hindu and Mayan mathematicians, working back when math was fun and easy, had Earth’s trip around the sun down cold, figured out to the hundredth of a second. Then they would blow it by trying to schedule their version of the Rose Bowl on the anniversary of the creation of the universe — millennia before the invention of the three-day weekend, no less.
Egypt had a nice agrarian answer — break out the funny hats when the Dog Star rises with the sun, which coincided nicely with the Nile’s spring flood. This worked well for knowing when to plant the cotton but posed a Sirius problem for those with quarterly reports due on Pharaoh’s desk.
Rome, of course, brought us this day of revelry. Rome, which built an empire with a 10-month calendar, which had the great good sense to skip right from December to March and thus avoid lots of crummy weather, could not leave well enough alone. It wasn’t enough to rule the world; Rome had to be prompt about it. Actually, and ironically, it was Julius Caesar’s idea, in 64 B.C., to grease up Janus, the two-faced god who guarded the past and the future, with a special day. Legend has it that Janus partied a bit too much and plumb forgot to tell Caesar something important about an upcoming Ides.
Caesar’s calendar, with a leap year every fourth orbit, worked tolerably well until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII woke up one morning to find the planet was 10 days ahead of itself. Gregory fixed the problem, short term, by scratching a chunk of that October and long term by tinkering with the leap-year formula. He fixed it so well, in fact, that we won’t have an extra day on our hands until sometime around 5287. Plenty of time to make plans.
So the nuts and bolts of putting a year together are fairly in order, but we still don’t quite have a grip on how to observe its commencement. That’s the truly peculiar part of New Year’s Day. Other major holidays — Christmas, Easter, Veterans Day, Memorial Day — are based upon matters of deep spirituality and solemnity, and in celebrating them we constantly scold ourselves for fooling around, for having a little fun. New Year’s is the one holiday without a serious bone in its body. It’s about nothing but making noise and staying up late, yet, in our perversely human way, we load it up with false promises to reform ourselves, to change our ways, to stop being like this and to start being like that. Jan. 1 becomes, in effect, the guaranteed departure date for a guilt trip.
Mark Twain, who said just about everything he said better than anyone else, put it this way:
“Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and go on cutting our ancient shortcomings shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”