Season of renewal is more welcome than ever
Published 4:43 pm Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Celebration of a new year is among the oldest traditions practiced by man for the simple reason that the annual cycle of the seasons has sustained and governed life ever since humans began walking upright.
Early hunters and gatherers, and a bit later, farmers, didn’t understand the tilting of Earth on its axis, but they knew from experience that new life began each time the days grew longer.
The earliest among them knew that a fresh crop of berries and fruit would be available for the taking as soon as the land warmed, as would a new crop of wild animals that were a major source of food and clothing.
They later learned that by using the season’s cycle, they could plant seeds and, in time, harvest far more than had been available in the wild.
Civilizations were founded around the cycle and, when nature cooperated, they flourished. When it didn’t, crops failed, and entire civilizations might disappear.
It’s little wonder that the yearly cycle became a cause for awe, celebration and even worship. Thus, New Year’s celebrations became an integral part of man’s existence, but it took quite a while to settle on just when the new year should be observed.
The ancient Babylonians, who knew a thing or two about creating a civilization, are believed to have been the first people to formally celebrate each new year. They may have even been the first to make New Year’s resolutions. (If so, they were probably also the first to break them.)
New Year to the Babylonians began in March when they planted crops for another year. It was a logical time to note the beginning of the annual cycle.
Centuries after the Babylonians, Julius Caesar created what he believed would henceforth be the official calendar for the world. It placed Jan. 1 about halfway into what we now view as that month. The Orthodox Church, which has steadfastly held to Caesar’s handiwork, places the New Year on Jan. 14.
The Julian Calendar was, in fact, the standard for more than 15 centuries. It was replaced in 1582 by the Gregorian Calendar, also known as the “New Style Calendar.” Pope Gregory XIII commissioned it to replace Caesar’s, which didn’t match the earth’s annual cycle just by a fraction. The correction made by Gregory was minute. He continued Caesar’s system of a Leap Year every four years but dropped Leap Year at the turn of each century unless the year was divisible by 400. Talk about picking nits, but it works reasonably well. With the change, a new alignment of Jan. 1 emerged and remains with us.
In today’s world, man’s intimate connection with the seasons has greatly diminished. For many in an urban environment, the New Year marks the beginning of a tax business and cycle more than anything else — unless, of course, their fiscal year begins in July.
Nonetheless, we celebrate New Year’s with great enthusiasm. We write our resolutions, and for diehard Southerners, eat our black-eyed peas, collards and hog jowls — or a substitute slice of some other pork.
While our connection with the seasons may have dimmed, our need for the renewal, a new lease on life associated with each New Year, has not. Thus, we enthusiastically embrace each New Year’s Eve. Whether we’re watching a glittery ball dropped in Times Square, a possum lowered from a service station roof in western North Carolina, or we’re sitting at home quietly having a hot chocolate before bed, the turning of the calendar at midnight on Dec. 31 remains an important symbol in our lives.
And the observation is, indeed, important. I can’t recall during my life a time when a new beginning was more needed than now. The past year and nine months have challenged our nation and the rest of the world in ways unimagined a year earlier. We’ve made huge progress in meeting the COVID challenge despite the virus’s durability and flexibility — and despite the refusal of many people to help in that effort. Against significant odds, the economy is recovering rapidly from the recession that the pandemic caused and life is beginning to return to something akin to normal.
Major challenges remain, particularly the vaccination of millions upon millions in the world’s poorest countries where people, unlike many Americans, are begging for vaccines to protect themselves and their families. Until those nations are helped, it’s unlikely that we’ll see this virus fully controlled.
But that’s what New Years are all about — resolving to do better. Here’s hoping we will.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.