So, did you make a New Year’s Resolution? Do you think you can get rid of a nasty old habit this coming year or reach some goal you’ve had in mind? Do you think it will work . . . this time?
At least, you didn’t have to worry about the day on which to make that decision. We’re following the calendar established finally by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 AD (anno Domini, “year of our Lord”). He adjusted the solar calendar proclaimed by Julius Caesar in 48 BC (“before Christ”) that measured the year by the number of days it takes our earth to orbit the sun. Caesar’s astronomers also established January as the beginning of the Roman year. After all, Janus (“doorway”) was the god of beginnings (See “Janus” among the IMAGES in this website). January is also when the earth stops tilting away from the sun and starts tilting toward it, when our days become longer and warmer.
But, then, Julius and Gregory were living in the earth’s northern hemisphere, while the earth tilts in the opposite direction for those living in the southern hemisphere. Nor is it true that everyone believes the sun should be the measure of all things. Many cultures follow a lunar calendar (Islam) with emphasis upon the waxing crescent. Many observe the first day of the year in autumn when the harvest arrives (Judaism) or in the spring when new life appears (Buddhists in southeast Asia). If a harvest comes twice a year (Polynesia), New Year’s Day comes “twice a year”!
Notice that we think of our year not only as cyclical (repeating itself) but also as linear (moving ahead from some significant point). Pope Gregory thought the beginning of the calendar should be the Birth of Christ so that this year is 2,018 years since then. Others count from the Birth of the Buddha, or the establishment of the first Muslim community, or even the Creation of the world. Linear time moves like an arrow toward some goal that depends upon one’s containing myth or one’s world view (See my “Apocalypse” post).
For some time now, educated people have thought it inaccurate and unfair to keep counting time from the “year of our Lord” as if the world were Christian. So we no longer say “BC” and “AD” and prefer “BCE” (Before the Common Era) and “CE” (Common Era). This means that globally—for political and business reasons—we now have a “common” dating system despite its leaning on the historical influence of Western European culture. Let me note that one of my daughters came back from middle school some years ago with information from her teacher that “CE” meant “Common Error”—the error of thinking Christ was the Messiah. Oh, well.
Let us all admit, however, that we are still living out of the ancient mythical notion that the transition from an Old Year to a New Year is highly charged, fraught with meaning. It is imperative that we see “out” an old, weak, fruitless year with rituals of Chaos (the madness of Times Square and elsewhere). It is critical that we scare away demons that might prevent the rebirth of time with the loud noises they hate (fireworks will do the trick). We must encourage the coming “in” of new Time with celebrations of joy (“Everybody dance!” Guy Lombardo commanded, year after year). It’s a pleasure to learn that old cultures actually required sexual orgies to symbolize not only the breakdown of taboos (Chaos) but also the productive year ahead (Order). I hope you kissed someone at midnight on New Year’s Eve! The world depends upon it.
Making a New Year’s Resolution is all part of the joyful side of ritually renewing time. So I hope you did that, too. But why might it not work? Because we are often unaware that what we are doing is not just literally but symbolically significant. Ignorance saps the strength of what we are doing, i.e., when it is not rooted in our common humanity. More important, a “resolution” can be merely willful when we all know, yearly, that where there’s a will, there is not always a way. We need “Janus,” the God of beginnings—who “lives” as a symbol of the ever-present unconscious psyche—to help us to succeed. We need to ask Him first if he agrees with the resolution we have in mind, if perhaps he wants us to improve in some other area or, perhaps, just improve our acceptance of who we already are. Maybe He wants a different goal. Or maybe he approves and you can walk through the “Janus Gate”—like an ancient Roman—with head held high, more confident than usual that it will all work out.
Happy New Year!
WANT MORE? Read the essay by Joseph Henninger, “New Year Festivals,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Eliade, vol. 10 (Macmillan, 1987).