The New Year is upon us: 2012, or, for the superstitious, the last year of our existence on Earth. For the superstitious there have been many last years of our existence on Earth. Somehow, the invalidity of their superstitions demonstrated by our persistence here rarely loosens their grip on those superstitions; something that mystifies me.
We persist. We cling tenaciously to this third rock from the sun and watch the seasons of our life go by and imagine that all of the little things we do—keeping the house clean, learning to tie a Windsor knot, spending long moments deciding between Emmentaler and Gruyére—are important. The New Year brings with it the usual habit of resolving to do something better. Eat less, exercise more, quit smoking, quit drinking, quit procrastinating, quit spending foolishly, quit doing all of the things that make our lives dreary and start doing those things that hearsay teaches us will make our lives shiny, pretty and sweet, successful and blessed.
In various libraries where I have worked we have found it important, or maybe just fun, to play along with this game. We set up displays of books on exercise, smoking cessation, managing one’s money, finding a suitable mate, and many other things people claim they will do in the New Year. These books are snapped up within days, carried to the checkout desk by people with the glint of determination in their eyes, and slid quietly into the book return a week or two later. We know that most resolutions are not going to last past January. January is not a time for resolve. January sets you up to fail; New Year’s resolutions are a tradition as artificial as believing that the year begins on January 1st, just because the calendar currently in use says it does.
The calendar has changed many times in the history of the western world, and recently enough that the dislocations caused by the changes are still embedded in the names of our months. September, October, November and December basically mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth, even though they are the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months. This is because in the old Roman calendar, March was the first month of the year. But this calendar used a solar system of measurement, and because the movements of the Earth around the sun are not precise, it wandered a little each year. By the 40s B.C., the calendar was running along about three months ahead of the solar year. Julius Caesar was advised by an Alexandrian astronomer named Sosigenes to reform the Roman calendar by implementing a leap year, which brought it closer to accurate, though still not precise. When he implemented the new calendar in 46 B.C., he thought it would be a good idea to move the start of the year closer to the winter solstice, to have some astronomical rationale for the beginning of the year. People who encounter this history for the first time often ask why he didn’t just set it at the solstice. Or why he didn’t move it to the vernal equinox, which was simply later in March. To these doubters Julius Caesar would likely have said, If you’re so smart, get your own empire.
The Julian calendar was reformed once again in 1582 by Pope Gregory, though he didn’t find it necessary to move the months around, so we’re still stuck with those misnomers for the last four months of the year. We’re stuck also with a year that ‘begins’ in a month that is icy, cold and dreary in much of the northern hemisphere, a month that takes much of our resolve to keep a good attitude, to get along cheerily from day to day—hardly conducive to facing down our worst habits and implementing salubrious new ones.
Imagine a year that began in March, the first month of spring, when even if there is still snow on the ground, you know the thaw is setting in. That’s a month that would play along, a month that would offer sunshine and the promise of warmer days in support of your resolutions. That would be a beginning of the year that people could feel innately within themselves. If you ask people what their favorite season is, most of them will cite spring or autumn, and if pressed for more definition, the overwhelming consensus favors the first weeks of those seasons, when the incipient warmth or chill begins to break the back of the persistent cold of winter or heat of summer. These are times of change that we all recognize; times when we feel our lives are changing. These are times to make resolutions.
The calendar has seen a few major reforms, but it has never been reformed to bring it more in unison with the seasons by which we live our lives. This is one of the great mistakes of history, and if there is ever talk of another calendar reform, we should resolve to fix the oversight.