(HOST) As we ring in the New Year, commentator Willem Lange is thinking about traditions – and celebrating the fact that – according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac – we’ve gained almost four minutes of daylight since the solstice just a few days ago.
(LANGE) People once used poles stuck into the ground and standing stones to mark the progress of the sun and the seasons. To them, this time of year was far more important than it is to us. Try living for a few years without electricity, central heat, and a grocery store, and the significance of sunlight and fertility will become obvious. So it was that those old-timers developed the rituals and ceremonies of midwinter.
Why should the new year begin on the first of January? A simple adjustment could move it to the winter solstice. But we’re not going to do that; it’s just not the way we’ve always done it. Well, not for the last 400 years or so, anyway.
Instead we celebrate the holidays as one great smear of excess, ending with alcohol-fueled foolishness, a tooting of cardboard horns, and a raucous rendition of "Auld Lang Syne." I do admit to a nostalgic longing to hear Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians play the tune, but I can’t help but wonder – like the small boy first seeing a giraffe – what’s it for?
New Year’s 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 crops. January first is of no intrinsic significance whatever.
The Romans also celebrated new year’s day at the spring equinox, but a more sophisticated world needed 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 mean year in the Julian calendar turned out to be too long, so the dates of the vernal equinox began to slide backward, and the lunar calendar used to calculate Easter Sunday was also drifting. 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.
Blame the Babylonians for the idea of making resolutions. Does any of us honestly believe he can do better in the coming year by resolving to do it? That’s in a category with the ancient belief that the first visitor of the year was portentous: A tall, dark-haired man was good luck; a blond man was bad luck, because he was probably a Viking.
After centuries of a Church prohibition of celebrations, no place else in the world brings in the new year more heartily than Scotland, where they mix traditions from the Norse, the native Scots, and the Normans. Robert Burns didn’t write the original words, but his version of "Auld Lang Syne" is sung each year, even in the Scottish Parliament: Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne?
This is "Auld Willem Lange Syne" in East Montpelier. And may the first visitor of your new year be tall and dark-haired.