Tied to nothing but the notion of flipping the page of a cosmic calendar, New Year is our most frivolous holiday.
But that’s what makes it so entertaining. People get together to mark the beginning of an arbitrary designation of time simply because they can.
And whooping it up at this moment feels really good. Simultaneously, December is a period of horrible stress and great anticipation. The bitter cold and prolonged darkness leave people hoping for better days ahead.
We humans have long been obsessed with figuring out how to mark time. The most sensible method was to chart the daily positions of the sun and moon in the sky.
Careful observation eventually determined that a solar year was just a tad shy of 365 and one-quarter days. Based on how many days had passed, people could now calculate the beginning of each season.
Of course, this had practical applications. Having a reliable way to track nature’s yearly calendar improved chances for survival.
Individuals could more easily prepare for the long cold months because they knew roughly how long they would last. So it was important to develop increments of time for years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds.
Celtic pagans celebrated the new year on Nov. 1, and Great Britain commemorated it on March 25 well into the 18th century. The Romans recorded the new year on March 1 — but Julius Caesar changed this date to Jan. 1 to honor the god Janus, who served as the namesake of January.
And when you’re in Rome (or, at least, in the Roman Empire — which controlled much of the civilized world), you do as the Romans do. The Julian calendar became the standard for many nations.
As societies became more sophisticated, people began recording events as well as the passage of time. Now they needed to distinguish one year from another to document precisely when something happened; we wouldn’t have any history books without this.
The Christmas narrative changed how we would document years. Those before Jesus’s arrival became known as BC (before Christ), and the dates since then are referenced as AD (anno Domini, Latin for “In the year of our Lord”). This system was developed by Dionysius Exiguus, a monk who was a member of the Roman Curia and lived in the 6th century, and it became widely used in the 9th century.
A more academic method of designating years was established by Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician, who marked specific dates in the “vulgar” (or common) era. Since then, using BCE (before common era) and CE (common era) has been a popular alternative to the exclusively Christian way of referring to the same periods.
Pope Gregory XIII found it necessary to adjust the Julian calendar because it goofed up when calculating leap years. So by papal fiat in 1582, he eliminated Oct. 5 through Oct. 14. In the new Gregorian calendar that year, Oct. 4 was followed the next day by Oct. 15.
But not everyone recorded years the same way. England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until about 170 years after it was introduced.
As a result, George Washington has two birthdays: Feb. 11, 1731 (when England still used the Julian calendar) and Feb. 22, 1732 (recorded as such after the Gregorian calendar was put into effect across the British Empire).
Some Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar as do many Amish people. This, in part, explains why Little Christmas (also called Old Christmas) is celebrated on Jan. 6.
Deciding on the proper calendar isn’t the only thing we’ve debated among ourselves when it comes to documenting time. Sharp differences exist in determining when one period ends and the next one begins.
More than 20 years ago, Harvard University scholar Stephen Jay Gould took a detour from his field of specialty (paleontology) to examine the pending calendar change from 1999 to 2000. In his 1997 book “Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown,” he chronicles some curious aspects of our deep interest in designating decades, centuries and millennia.
What fascinated Gould was that humans chose not to measure these units of time according to any known natural phenomena. A decade is 10 years. A century is 10 decades. And a millennium is 10 centuries.
This doesn’t correspond at all to either the lunar or solar appearances in the sky throughout the year. Somewhere along the line, we simply decided that dividing these concepts based on the number 10 made more sense.
Gould explores whether a new decade (and, hence, a new century and a new millennium) concludes in a year ending with a 9 or a 0. As he looks forward to the 21st century, he blames Dionysius Exiguus for forcing us to take sides.
In moving from the BC era, Dionysius Exiguus decided the AD era would start with Year 1. Gould argues that had the monk called it Year 0 instead, there would be no problem. The first decade would go from years 0 to 9, and the second decade would go from 10 to 19 — and so on.
Gould is correct about this being the cause of our differences, but a Year 0 would have been acceptable. The concept zero denotes a lack of substance. The first of anything is always referred to as 1.
In his book, Gould concludes that keeping track of time in such an arbitrary manner helps us see order in a chaotic universe. Perhaps this is why we become so thrilled over the New Year holiday. While we wait for this season to change, making merry for its own sake is as good a plan as any.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.