Monday, January 13, 2014

Reflections on New Years Day-- though a little late. . .

Reflections on New Year’s Day

Two aspects of NWD that I find interesting is the relational nature of the day—in that it is experienced across the globe at different times—and that it is largely arbitrary. These aspects make the day special and unique.

   First: the relational nature of the NWD. Most people do not seem to pay much attention to the fact that the world covers 24 time zones, for they are focused on their specific locale. Rarely is much thought given to the fact that people in other parts of the world experience the day at different times. Perhaps this is most apparent when we watch sports from the west coast and wonder why they are occurring so late in the evening though it is still “prime time” in their local area.

   New Years Day and New Years Eve then allows us to recognize this phenomenon, for we notice that places like New Zealand and Australia have already “brought in the New Year” before we even get up, and that when “the ball drops in New York City”, it is still several hours away in Los Angeles or Honolulu. In fact, these are among the last major cities to welcome the New Year. Thus for the many, New Years Day allows us to feel connected to the wider world, for like our counterparts in Asia and Europe, we are waiting our turn to greet the New Year. A sense of community even if short-lived and largely obligatory exists, for we all celebrate the arrival of a new year.   

The second issue—the arbitrariness of this date—is likewise intriguing. January the 1st was chosen by decree from Pope Gregory, who sought to modernize the church – and by extension the calendar. Over time the world accepted the Pontiff’s new reckoning and began using the Gregorian calendar for religious as well as civil matters. Centuries have passed. So, that today even civilizations using older calendars than Europe, such as China, embraced the Gregorian calendar at least for commercial purposes. The same likewise is true for Eastern Rite Christians who unlike their Western counterparts, failed to recognize Papal authority, and kept as part of their religion the older Julian calendar. Like modern Chinese however, contemporary Old Russian Believers celebrate New Year’s Day, from a civil standpoint as January the 1st. It has become standard.

   Yet for most people the decision to begin the New Year on January the 1st is unknown and unimportant. Gregory could just have well placed the beginning of the New Year in March or April, when the plants and animals are reborn. Additionally for the vast majority New Years Day seems to have no religious or spiritual significance. It is a time to celebrate and reflect, but not necessarily in any dogmatic way.

   Thus January 1st is New Years Day because years ago—and far away- a Pope decided that it would be so. As  if on cue, people throughout the world celebrate. The fact that this day begins on January 1st, which for many is in the middle of winter (for others it is in the middle of summer), appears to have no significance.  Stores and restaurants are open. Airplanes fly. White collar professionals and students are off. The world does pause—but not stop—and celebrates without context, a day that could have been picked other than in the middle of one of the four seasons. At its core, as practiced today, New Years Day is arbitrary and ordinary. Somehow though, it still becomes special. Maybe it’s the floats.