Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bonanza Column 265 - The Calendar

I’m writing this as we approach January 1 and as it is every year, much is being made of the “change” from one year to the next, as if it means something. Like most folks, I don’t mind an excuse for a party, but it’s probably worth remembering that calendars aren’t real.
Early on in human history, people observed that nature follows cycles – among the most obvious of these cycles is the alternation of daylight and darkness, and since all animals sleep and human being sleep at night, it was natural to treat each renewal of daylight as a “new day.” Another easily observed cycle was the apparent waxing and waning of the moon, which seemed to begin about every 28 days, so along with days people spoke in terms of months (moons). Finally, in the mostly temperate climates where humans lived, there was the cycle of the seasons.
These cycles gave us days, months, and years as naturally occurring phenomena. Then the human mind began to intervene. Cycles have no real beginning or end – like circles they just keep going round and round, but most things in human life have beginnings, middles, and ends, and so it was perhaps natural to see the cycle of the seasons as one of birth (Spring), growth (Summer), aging (Fall) and death (Winter). But if that is the case, why not begin the year in April, with the onset of Spring? Well, here another human feature comes in – call it religion or superstition depending on your bent. Along with the weather changes of the seasonal cycle, in most latitudes the cycles of daylight and darkness varied as well, and the “dying” part of the seasonal cycle, was also the time of year with the least daylight. Early religions incorporated festivals involving lights to fend off the darkness, and when the days began to gradually lengthen after the Winter Solstice, the darkness receded and they felt the world was reborn, so the custom of demarcating one year from the next in mid-winter was born.
Note that all of this calendaring is the result of human interpretations of natural phenomena. Now, thousands of years later we treat these interpretations as if they were facts. Religions set their “new year” according to their own calendar. The hijri, the Islamic New Year will occur anywhere from September to December during the second decade of the 21st Century (another invention – Centuries), rosh hashanah, the Jewish New Year is generally in September or October, tet, the Asian New Year occurs in a variation tied to the Winter Solstice, and the standard or secular New Year is, of course, January 1st. In all cases, though, the holiday supposedly marks a significant change – different years have different astrological and astronomical influences, as do different cycles, etc., and otherwise rational people vary somewhere between full credence and sheepish uneasiness in their relationship to the changes. Look at the turn of the millennium a dozen years ago or the supposed end of the Mayan calendar last week for illustrations of this phenomenon.
So let’s have a party, wish each other a happy “new year,” and remember to write 2013 on our checks (does anyone write checks any more?), but let’s not take it too seriously. Things will change, and we’ve set certain things (e.g. the government, budgets, credit card expirations) up to change in concert with changing over to a new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar or whatever, but remember the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same thing). The world in 2013 will consist largely of the effects of what happened in 2012, 2011, etc., and we would do well to keep working at what we began in 2012 and not expect any magic to occur when we take down one calendar and put up another.
Happy 2013.

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