Rethinking the calendar

The Thinker by Rodin

New Years Day is one of those puzzling holidays to me. While I appreciate the chance to do things like sleep in late, I do not understand the hoopla. To me it means almost nothing, except it usually makes me feel older. Like most of you, it takes me a few weeks before I do not have to remember to put the correct year on my checks. New Years Day, rather than being the start of something, feels more like the end of something. Specifically it feels like the end of the holiday season. Our holiday tree usually comes down on New Years Day, along with the lights that have been decorating the outside of our house. Once again, by festooning our house with lights we have convinced the gods to lengthen the days.

For me I think the reason that New Years Day means so little is that the date feels arbitrary. While I occasionally party on New Years Eve, I do not see much point to it. However, many other cultures start their New Years on different days. The Gregorian calendar sets the de-facto start of the new year across the world. For the Jews, the new year starts on Rosh Hashanah, exactly 163 days after Passover. For Eastern Orthodox adherents, it begins January 14th, that seven days after their Christmas. The Chinese New Year begins at the first new Moon after the start of winter, but no sooner than January 21st.

I think that the new year should start on a day that has some celestial significance. January 1st has none. It is not at the start of winter; typically, it falls eleven days after winter begins. There are four days during the year that have celestial significance for the earth. These are the winter and summer solstices, and the equinoxes. Of these four days, the one that truly makes sense to begin a new year is on the winter solstice. For after the winter solstice the days grow longer. Consequently, it makes intuitive sense to begin our years on the day of winter solstice. (Of course, those who live in the southern hemisphere might prefer to celebrate it on their winter solstice. Clearly, with the preponderance of the world’s population living in the Northern Hemisphere, they are easily outvoted.)

The Gregorian calendar also seems pretty arbitrary. Wikipedia provides its whole convoluted history. Suffice to say it was certainly is an improvement over the Julian calendar but it remains pretty weird and wacky. It still has a Roman feel to it. It would be nice if our months were evenly divisible, but our place in the cosmos does not work that way.

While I expect no one will take me up on my suggestion, I propose that we create a meaningful planetary calendar. On January 1st I feel completely apathetic about the upcoming year. However, if the new year were celebrated on the winter solstice, then I could get more into the spirit of the day. The darkest day of the year is a natural day for celebration because each subsequent day for the next six months brings more light (in the Northern hemisphere) and of course, the new growth on which all life depends. The pagans at least still understand the pull of our earthly cycles. Starting the new year on winter solstice would symbolize hope, expectations and the boundless possibilities for a new natural year in the earth’s cycle.

Therefore, the new year should start on the first day when days get longer in the northern hemisphere. The exact timing should depend on the official arrival of winter solstice. Universal Time (same as Greenwich Mean Time) should be used as our arbitrator. For example, in 2006 winter will start at December 22nd, 00:22 UT. This makes the daylight hours of December 22nd slightly longer than on December 21st, so it would be celebrated on the December 22nd. (Occasionally the new year would start on December 21st, but on most years it would occur on December 22nd.)

Rearranging our calendar would take some rethinking. I suggest that we get rid of the old “Roman” month names and find months that perhaps have more universal meanings. In general, though all months would start ten days earlier than they currently do.

Our seasons are also out of whack. By the time winter officially starts, it feels half over. On March 20th it is still officially Winter but in much of the Northern Hemisphere flowers are blooming all over the place. The English have it right. Spring starts on Candlemas: February 2nd. (This is Groundhog Day in the United States, so it makes a certain logical sense. You would almost expect an animal to look for signs of spring halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.) Summer begins on May Day (May 1st), Autumn on Lammas Day (August 1st) and Winter on All Hallows (or All Saints) Day, November 1st.

Granted this jiggering with the calendar would take some getting used to. Nevertheless, I do not think it would take too much. It would feel a more natural fit than our current bizarre and increasingly antiquated calendar system.

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