This time of year is one for reflection. So I thought I would update an article I wrote about New Year’s Day about a decade ago.
In reality, there is nothing special about Jan. 1. It’s the day after Dec. 31 and the one before Jan. 2.
Its only tangible element is that it comes 365 days (or 366 in a leap year) after the last New Year’s Day celebration, recognizing the period of time that the earth makes a complete circuit around the sun while spinning on it’s axis approximately 365 ¼ times. The selection of a date could have coincided with any point on the earth’s orbit. But it truly is nice that it falls on a holiday.
In a way, it’s kind of strange to celebrate the new year, particularly in January. The original logic made primitive sense. The first celebrations took place more than 4,000 years ago as the Babylonians celebrated the return of spring, and the planting season. The Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians, not to miss a time to party, then followed suit, but to be different, they used the fall equinox. The Greeks weighted in with the winter solstice.
Initially, the world used many calendars of varying start points and length. Some, particularly those based upon lunar cycles, changed their start points from one year to another. Jan. 1 was set arbitrarily, after thousands of years of study to determine the length of a year, and several thousand more of haggling and political intrigue to finally fix a “beginning” point (which is still not accepted by everyone today).
The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months, starting in March. Ever wonder how September (seven), October (eight), November (nine) and December (10) got their names?
In about 700 B.C., Rome switched to 12 months (it’s a good thing, or all our calendars today would be obsolete). But it wasn’t until 153 B.C. that the beginning of the year was moved to Jan. 1.
Why? Simple. That was the day the consuls of Rome began their one-year term of office. In 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, Jan. 1 became firmly established as the first day of the Roman calendar.
But the month of January had been named after the Roman God, Janus (a two-headed god who looked forward and backward — perhaps the first to publish a list of the “best of the past year” and predictions or resolutions for the year ahead).
But in medieval Europe it was eventually judged that celebrating on Jan. 1 was too closely tied to this “pagan deity” and in 567 A.D., the designation of Jan. 1 as the start of the New Year was banned.
Obviously the party-goers and manufacturers of hats and noisemakers were not about to take this lying down. So other dates were selected in different parts of the world: Dec. 25, March 1, Easter, and so on.
Then, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII redid the calendar, which had gotten a bit messy, and re-established Jan. 1 as the start of the new year for all of Catholicism. Since then, Jan. 1 has become the secular standard for the entire world, although many religions and nations continue, additionally, to celebrate their own New Year’s Day based on historical traditions.
Interestingly, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in the U.K. and the U.S. until 1752 — previously, New Years had been celebrated in March.
The true wisdom and significance of a fixed date of Jan. 1 for the start of the new year has only become apparent with the passage of time. Even more amazing is the fact that at the time Caesar and the Pope made their decisions, neither football nor television had been invented. But without their perspicacity, imagine the problems we would have today if, for example, they had picked a date in April, or July (months after the end of the football season and bowl games.
But arbitrary as the selection of Jan. 1 may be, the start of a new year holds a special aura for most of us. We like things wrapped up in nice neat packages. The end of a year is a great time to reflect on the past.
And the start of a new year provides an opportunity to plan for a future filled with positive expectations. Because nature, in her infinite wisdom, made “the end” and “the start” coincide, we can combine the two efforts into a single process for each cycle. Most critically, the establishment of a firm New Year gave rise to one of mankind’s greatest inventions — the New Year’s Resolution.
The art of “New Year’s Resolving” was developed over many centuries of human effort. The first attempts were rather tentative, like: “I’m going to make it through this day.” Then people realized they had a whole year to address, and so resolutions changed to: “I’m going to live to see another year.” But a lot of people didn’t, giving the process a somewhat tarnished image right from the start.
As people became more adept at the process, resolutions became more specific. They started dealing with bad habits people wanted to relinquish, or good things they wanted to achieve. In the early days, one could plan on tomorrow being more or less like today. These days the situation is more complex, however, since repetition and stability have become anathemas and woe to anyone who has to live yesterday, today.
More recently a new school of thought has developed, as people began to recognize that giving up bad habits and making New Year’s Resolutions is somewhat akin to giving up food and going on a fast — natural forces seem to lead to breaking them.
Some people have become adept at this. The extreme illustration came from one of the world’s greatest “resolutionists.” After analyzing the subject for years, he was determined to change the pattern. So one year he resolved never to make New Year’s resolutions, and set the world record before he realized what he had done.
On a personal basis, the actions that led to the establishment of Jan. 1 as the New Year have had substantial repercussions. My wife, Beverly, is a serious fanatic for setting goals and objectives.
The process starts weeks before, with not-so-subtle hints to all members of the family that the time is coming to review the past and ponder the future. By Jan. 1 everyone is walking on eggshells, dreading to hear that inevitable request: “So tell me about your goals for the coming year!” Woe to anyone in the family who does not have a complete and satisfying answer.
But if you, like me, have to, or chose to go through the process, a few serious points that may be of help.
First, remember that there are usually good reasons why one has developed bad habits or has not accomplished things in the previous year. It will take more than wishing to change things.
Second, reflection over the past is an important starting point to identify these reasons and to make sure that plans for the future are realistic and have any hope of fulfillment.
Third, don’t shoot for the moon. Think in small steps instead of big leaps. Rather than make resolutions in the form of an eventual goal (e.g. I will loose 20 pounds) build your resolutions around smaller steps (e.g. I will loose a pound a week).
Short term, “clearly achievable” goals are much more motivational than long-term, “possibly achievable” goals. (The latter will get you to your goal in 5 months and is clearly “doable,” whereas 20 pounds may be too far off in the distance to be very inspirational and sustainable).
Finally, if you can, build your resolutions around the process that will get you to your goal, rather than the goal itself (I will go out for a two-mile walk every morning, or I will give up that dish of ice cream after dinner). These are much easier to focus on and adhere to and will lead to tangible results. (As you might guess, I have a few “weighty matters” on my mind).
And finally, if you are absolutely determined not to break or bend any resolutions, don’t make them. Spend the time enjoying the bowl games or whatever you enjoy doing when the earth hits that point in space that says: “Whoopee! We’re here again.”
I hope the coming year is especially happy, healthy, bright and productive for you and your loved ones, filled with joy, peace and much contentment. By the end of the year, may we see a better and safer world, and all be able to take satisfaction in what we have done to make it so.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Arizona and Georgia. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other week, more or less. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information go to www.CopenCom.com.