Tuesday, January 01, 2013

On New Years and Calendars

To me, New Year's Day means another birthday - I was born about a couple hours after the ball fell at Times Square. But, for some reason, the celebrations precedes my birth.

Early History
Ancient Egyptian calendar
It didn't take man long to figure out that the earth has a seasonal cycle, just about every plant and animal on the planet knows this too. The earliest celebrations of a New Year revolved around one of the seasonal changes - the Sumerians picked the spring equinox while the Egyptians chose fall.

Because humans love counting shit they quickly invented calendars so they could track the number of days that Shulgi was late returning that oxen he borrowed. Calendars were mostly based on the lunar cycles, 29 days and change, because the moon was easy to track. Unfortunately, using the moon always leaves us several days short of a year.

Julius and Roman Calendars
Pretty much the whole world nowadays works off some variation of the Roman calendar, which is weird because few civilizations in human history were worse at calendar making than the Romans.

Before Julius Caesar, Rome had a standard calender year that was 355 days (you probably notice a problem here) long; occasionally (really rather randomly) they would insert a thirteenth month to make a 378 year hoping to balance things out eventually. As a result, most Romans were never sure just what day or even what month it was.

Julius regulated the calender at 365 days divided among 12 months with quadrennial leap years. He also set January 1 as the official start of the new year. Because Julius was an egoist, he also named one of the months (July) after himself.

But the Romans were done fucking the the calendars. It seems most every emperor felt the need to rename one or more of the months. Then there was Emperor Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator. Even by the low standards set by emperors like Nero and Caligula, Commodus was insane. To honor himself Commodus renamed all of the months for his various nicknames.

The Popish Calendar
While the Julian calendar was an improvement over the previous "Romans Can't Count" calendar, it wasn't perfect. Over the course of centuries the errors were adding up and was starting to mess with scheduling holy days like Easter. So Pope Gregory rejiggered the calendar and cut ten days out of October, 1582 to straighten things out.

The Pope, being Catholic, had no influence of Protestant and Orthodox countries. This made for all sorts of confusion for the nations of Europe. England, for example, didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 18th century. For two centuries, England's calendar was a week and a half behind the calendar used across the Channel in France.

The strangest case was Russia. Their famous October Revolution that overthrew the Czar and installed a Communist government actually happened in November according the the Gregorian calendar. It was only after the revolution that Russia adopted the modern calendar.

New Years Through the Year
  • The Eastern Orthodox calendar celebrate the new year on January 14.
  • The Chinese falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 21, depending on the phase of the moon.
  • In Tibet the new year is greeted by a 15-day long celebration.
  • Lots of people still celebrate the new year around the vernal equinox.
  • The Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) coincides with the biblical creation of the universe and falls between Sept. 5 and Oct. 5.
  • The Islamic new year (Hijri) is still based on a 355 day lunar calendar and is a moveable event.
Modern Celebrations
  • The first Times Square ball drop was New Years Eve, 1907. After just four years, the New York Times owner, Adolph Ochs, had grown tired of just setting off fireworks to celebrate the new year.
  • In 1929, young, hip band leader Guy Lombardo began a tradition of playing "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight. This tradition lasted almost fifty years.
  • In 1972, the young, hip host of American Bandstand, Dick Clark, began supplanting that long in the tooth old geezer Lombardo with a new tradition of rock and roll.
  • By the turn of the century that old geezer Dick Clark was was still around pretending to be rad. He was eventually replaced by young, hip nobody Ryan Seacrest.
For eons now, people everywhere have celebrated the coming of a new year with the hope it will be better than the year just past.

It never is.

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