Making the most of new year

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

It's a fantasy, of course, that Jan. 1 represents some kind of rebirth, a cleaning of the slate, a point of absolution for last year's sins.

But it's a widespread custom that we learn it early.

I asked my 11-year-old what the calendar rollover meant to her. Even she couched it in terms of new beginnings, "a chance to start over," she said.

Insofar as choosing a date at which calendars come full circle is concerned, nothing, it seems to me, makes the intersection of Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 any more significant than, say, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, or any other change of month for that matter, save perhaps the juncture of June 30 and July 1, at which point the state gets to begin spending a new pot of money each year.

I figure this whole "fresh start" business typically gets filtered through a hangover's fog, anyway. Witness the silliness of most New Year's resolutions.

If you're looking for a logical date to represent the end of one year and the beginning of the next, what about the winter or summer solstice? There, at least, one could point to the positions of the sun. It really wouldn't matter much that the exact point at which the sun ceased its apparent journey south or north in the sky might be a few hours removed from midnight. We still could celebrate at the witching hour. No sense giving up all tradition.

Or perhaps we should employ the vernal equinox, as the ancient Babylonians did. The beginning of spring might be more logical than a solstice. By the way, according to one Web source, the most popular New Year's resolution in Babylon was a promise to return borrowed farm equipment.

Julius Caesar, it turns out it, chose Jan. 1 as New Year's Day when he established what came to be called the Julian calendar around 45 B.C. By then, the existing calendar had become appallingly out of whack with the cycles of the seasons. To bring everything back into synchrony, Julius went radical and added 90 days to that year, which, understandably, became known as the "year of confusion."

The Julian calendar more or less held sway until Pope Gregory XIII instituted reforms in 1582, though from 567 to that year, New Year's Day itself was celebrated in early spring by order of the Council of Tours, which had declared the change for religious reasons too numerous and debatable to go into here.

The Gregorian calendar wasn't universally adopted for civil affairs around the world until the 18th century. England and Italy, for instance, didn't make Jan. 1 officially New Year's Day until 1750.

In many places, other calendars bearing little resemblance to Pope Gregory's remain in use for traditional and religious celebrations, such as the Hebrew, Islamic or Chinese calendars.

But history is history, and we've been celebrating the traditional flop of the yearly clock at midnight on Dec. 31 far too long to change now. Part of that tradition is ascribing to the date a chance to start over. We all do it, consciously or not.

I'll admit that for my part, New Year's Day embraces a measure of freshness, but largely for what it promises not day one, but weeks beyond.

New Year's Day is a great holiday, mind you - plenty of contact sport on TV, college football games that actually mean something to somebody.

As for the pros, it generally marks the beginning of the long, slow march to Super Bowl Sunday on, what is it now? Something like St. Patrick's Day?

I like the game, don't get me wrong. But the end of football also means the beginning of spring training for America's real pastime, baseball, for which I have a serious Jones.

I follow baseball news through the dark and dreary months of fall and winter and admit to more than a passing interest in the trades, contract negotiations, free-agency shenanigans and the idiosyncrasies of salary caps, as I await the broadcast of preseason games, which, by the way, one can access over the Internet.

January also means the days are getting longer in Alaska, offering more time for another passion skiing. OK, actually sunlight hours have been lengthening since Dec. 21, but by mid-January they're noticeably longer. The clear, crisp days of February and March aren't far off and with them the best skiing of the year, typically under skies lit by sunlight well into the evening hours.

Kids mark a rollover of sorts as they return to classrooms after the Christmas break. For many, January is very much a fresh start, a new semester, a chance to push those fall Cs to spring As and tackle whole new arenas of learning.

With the start of the legislative session coming within days of the new year, state lawmakers get to put new political theories to the test you know, the ones they've developed after meeting with constituents during the interim. Hey, things could be different this year.

It could happen.

We humans arrive, live and depart, replaced by others, as they say, in a continuing circle of life. Orbits govern our world. Perhaps it is quite natural, then, that we tend to see things in repeating cycles, much as our brains are hard-wired to see faces in clouds or on the moon.

Lamentably, these cycles are coming much too fast these days. If you're like me, something nags in the back of your mind asking where'd the year go? Irretrievably gone, I'm afraid.

And that fact, above all others, may be the real reason we seem to hold to the notion that each new year brings a fresh start. The sense of lost opportunity makes the illusion of being handed another chance, merely because of a date, important for keeping things in perspective. And for most intents and purposes, the illusion works pretty well.

Happy New Year.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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