A Movable Celebration

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(HOST) Storyteller and commentator Willem Lange has been wondering why New Year’s Day is January first.

(LANGE) People once used poles stuck into the ground and various arrangements of standing stones to mark the progress of the seasons.  For them this time of year was far more stressful than it is to us.  Try living without electricity, central heat, and a grocery store for a few years, and the significance of returning light and fertility will become quite obvious.  So it was that those old-timers developed the rituals and ceremonies of midwinter.  Later cultures piggybacked on the old customs, and continue to do so today.

Why should the new year begin on the first of January?  A simple adjustment of the calendar could move it to the winter solstice or, even more appropriate, the spring equinox, which is really when the new year’s life begins – at least in our northern hemisphere, where all the previous changes to the calendar have been made.  But you know we’re not going to do that.

New Year’s has traveled here and there through the calendar over the centuries.  It’s our oldest holiday.  It was first celebrated in Babylonia around 2000 B.C., and began with the first visible crescent of the new moon after the spring equinox.  It was time then to prepare to plant the new year’s crops.  January 1, by contrast, is of no significance whatsoever – except that it’s time to balance your books and mail out your Form 1099s before the end of the month.

The Romans continued celebrating new year’s at the spring equinox, but this proved unsatisfactory in a world in need of distinct dates.  In 46 B.C. (a date impossible to have known at the time) Julius Caesar decreed January 1 as the start of the year.  That was an improvement, but the Julian calendar year turned out to be too long, so the dates of the vernal equinox and Easter Sunday began to slide backwards.  To settle the confusion, Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 issued a papal bull establishing Christ’s birth as the beginning of the modern era and setting up the Gregorian calendar, which most of us use today.

Meanwhile, the Church had confiscated, along with several other pagan holidays, the new year’s one, as well.  It became the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision, not a very big deal (except for Christ); but it was condemned by Protestants after the Reformation, as Popish and unholy.  Only since around 1600 has New Year’s been celebrated by western nations.

The Babylonians started another new year’s tradition that ought to be abandoned: making resolutions.  Does any of us honestly believe he can do better in the coming year by dedicating himself to improvement?  That belongs in the same category as the wacky belief that the first visitor of the new year portended good or bad luck: a tall, dark-haired man was good luck; a blond man was bad luck, because he was probably a Viking.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, wishing your first visitor of the new year to be tall and dark-haired.

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