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What's New at New Year's?

Why does January 1 inaugurate the new year?

Roman calendar, ca. 84-55 BC
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman-calendar.png
In a few minutes, the ball will drop in Times Square and, as far as I am concerned, 2012 will have arrived.

Never mind that I am living on the west coast, three hours behind New York. Having grown up on Eastern time, that's where time starts, as far as I am concerned.

Which got me reflecting on what actually happens tonight: what is the "new" in New Year's, anyway?

Let's start with what isn't new.

January 1 does not mark the turning point of the season: that happened back around December 21-22, when the length of the night stopped increasing.

Or to be more technical about it:

The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun....the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north (Arctic Polar Circle) are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south (Antarctic Polar Circle) receive 24 hours of daylight.

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So why mark the transition to the New Year tonight?

First, we need to understand what a year is, which is not such a simple thing.

Different societies have calendars starting at points in the annual cycle of the sun or marked by cycles of the moon, or a combination of the two. The Islamic calendar is a major example of a calendar based on lunar cycles, with twelve months adding up to about 354 days. Both the Chinese and the Jewish years combine lunar-cycle months to approximate a solar cycle, so that the length of a year varies-- from 353 to 385 days.

The calendar ending today, used throughout the Christian world, in contrast, is designed to match the length of a solar cycle, without concern for keeping lunar cycles coordinated. That's why the phases of the moon vary from month to month. The original Christian calendar was revised under Pope Gregory in 1582, and so is called the Gregorian calendar. It reformed a previous "Julian" calendar, inherited from the Romans.

Unlike the contemporary Gregorian calendar, the original Roman calendar began in spring, on the first day of the month of Martius (ancestral to the Gregorian March). That is the month that includes the spring equinox, when days start being longer than night. The spring equinox, equivalent to March 21, is marked as the beginning of the year in the Zoroastrian and Iranian cultures.

How did January become so important, so that today we inaugurate the New Year, not on the solstice (when the days stop getting shorter) or at the equinox (when day starts growing longer than night)?

The original Julian calendar can be traced back to Julius Caesar, who introduced it in 45 BC (some sources say 46 BC). While some sources say he was the first to set the start of the calendar on January 1, more authoritative accounts say that the start of the year was already moved from the Kalends of March to the first of January in 153 BC, when that date was established as the start of the term of office of the Roman officials known as consuls.

So we celebrate January 1 as the beginning of the New Year because the Romans did-- starting somewhere in the last two centuries BC. And that means one answer to "what's new on New Year's Day" would be: new consuls. Except that Roman-style government successions seem fairly irrelevant today.

Luckily, there is a more interesting aspect to the Roman roots of our current festivity. January owes its name to the Roman god Janus:

Janus is the Roman god of gates and doors (ianua), beginnings and endings, and hence represented with a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions. He was worshipped at the beginning of the harvest time, planting, marriage, birth, and other types of beginnings, especially the beginnings of important events in a person's life.

When you celebrate the start of the New Year on January 1, you are invoking this spirit of beginnings: looking forward and back simultaneously, as a way to start important events off on the right foot.

And somehow, that seems just right: we are stopping to look back and forward as we take the first step across the threshold of new projects.

I will be looking back to 1999, when I joined thousands of visitors at Angkor Wat, in the dark of night watching 2000 Buddhist monks release lanterns that floated off into the air. For me, it was New Year's Eve, part of the transition to a new millennium (and yes, I know the arguments for starting the millennium a year later-- but practically, the world's population decided the point by fearing, and then celebrating, the clock ticking from 1999 to 2000).

It was a strange way to mark the Gregorian New Year. January 1 is not significant in the Theravadin Buddhist calendar of Cambodia, which starts in April. The party held at Angkor Wat was consequently not part of a local tradition, but it did draw on a traditional way to mark time during the winter months.

And, like Janus, floating lanterns are especially appropriate symbols of the beginning of a new temporal cycle.

The lanterns released that night at Angkor Wat are used by the northern Thai Lanna people in their festival of Yi Peng, coinciding with the Buddhist festival of Loy Krathong

when the rivers and canals are full of water... on the full moon night of the Twelfth Lunar month. People bring bowls made of leaves (which contain flowers) candles and incense sticks, and float them in the water. As they go, all bad luck is suppose to disappear. The traditional practice of Loy Krathong was meant to pay homage to the holy footprint of the Buddha on the beach of the Namada River in India.

The Lanna Yi Peng uses lanterns instead of bowls of flowers, floating up into the sky instead of along the water, floating lanterns "launched into the air where they resemble large flocks of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating by through the sky", a gesture of good luck that takes "problems and worries floating away".

So for my New Year, I will remember the dropping of a lighted ball over Times Square in New York, and a Thai variant of a Buddhist festival (itself perhaps based on an 18th century Khmer original) carried out at the seat of an ancient Hindu and Buddhist society that, it has been argued, was itself oriented to the movement of the sun through the sky in its annual cycle.

Because while December 31 as New Year's Eve may not be universal, counting time, reflecting on the past, and looking forward to the future may well be.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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