A New Year’s Reflection
As we leave 2023 in the rearview and start the New Year, I found myself wondering how ---and/or when --- January 1st became “the day” that we start a New Year. I had some ideas about it (regarding the Julian and Gregorian calendars) and certainly knew it was dictated by Western Christianity, but I wasn’t entirely clear about the genesis of January 1st as the start of New Years.
While I understood the Winter Solstice (on or about December 21st) was a significant “holiday” for ancient peoples it seemed more logical that the Vernal Equinox (on or about March 21st), the beginning of Spring (and planting season), would be the “awakening” of a New Year. Here’s what I learned from Wikipedia (yup, this is how I spent New Year’s Eve Day).
The Roman republican calendar and the Julian calendar both recognized January 1 as the beginning of the New Year. The date was chosen partly in honor of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and the month’s namesake. The calendar was proposed by Roman consul Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reform of the earlier Roman calendar, which was largely a lunisolar one. It took effect on 1 January 45 BC, by edict. Though medieval Christians attempted to replace January 1 with more religiously significant dates, Pope Gregory XIII created a revised calendar that officially established January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582. That date was gradually adopted in Europe and beyond; it subsequently spread to countries without dominant Christian traditions.
Most nations of Europe and their colonies officially adopted 1 January as New Year's Day somewhat before they adopted the Gregorian calendar. France changed to 1 January from 1564, most of Germany did so from 1544, the Netherlands from 1556 or 1573 according to sect, Italy (pre-unification) did so on a variety of dates, Spain and Portugal from 1556, Sweden, Norway and Denmark from 1599, Scotland from 1600, and Russia from 1725. England, Wales, Ireland, and Britain's American colonies adopted 1 January as New Year's Day from 1752.
It seems, then, that January 1st has been the start of the New Year (in the Western world)in some way, shape, or form, for 2068 years. So, that sated my curiosity about how January 1st became New Year’s Day. As I further reflected on this year’s turn, I recognized it as my 75th “new year.” Three quarters of a century. Quite a chunk of time. Makes one realize the finish line is within sight (but you hope it keeps moving farther away). For whatever reason, it led me to think about my paternal great-grandmother and my maternal grandmother --- both of whom lived to be 84 years old. It wasn’t so much that they were both 84 when they passed --- it was that “Nana” (my great-grandmother) was born in 1876 and my Grandma was born in 1900.
As I considered the history of New Year’s Day, I couldn’t help but consider my own history --- and the fact that I knew someone born when Rutherford B. Hayes was President, and someone born when William McKinley was President! While my personal timeline overlapped for 11 years with Nana and 35 with Grandma, they had experienced 73 and 49 years, respectively, before I ever showed up. In terms of U.S. history (I won’t even attempt to consider the scope of World History) Nana was born the year Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow began, she lived through the Gilded Age and industrialization, the Spanish-American War. At that point, Grandma was born, and the two of them were alive when the Wright Brothers took off, Marconi sent his first radio message, Henry Ford created the Model-T, the Titanic sunk (and Fenway Park opened), World Wars I & II, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, the dropping of the A-Bomb and the beginning of the Cold War. Nana was still alive when Yuri Gargarin orbited the Earth and Grandma saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon! These two women, who had been born in agrarian societies in Bohemia and Sicily, respectively, in a world where beasts of burden pulled plows, had seen this radical progress --- radio, movies, talkies, television all occurred in their lifetimes. From bi-planes to missiles, from horse-drawn carts to personal automobiles, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Lindbergh’s flight. It goes on and on, of course, but the realization, for me, is that as this New Year turns I am, however remotely, connected & related to people who lived through extraordinarily historic times.
This, in turn, led me to think about something I used to tell the high school students at my last teaching position. Most of the students at that school had been born in the late 1990’s and early aughts, and very few remembered 9/11. Periodically --- particularly when I seemed grotesquely out of touch regarding their culture and music --- I would point out, “Hey, I was born in the first half of the last century --- gimme a break.” It did give them pause (as I watched a few try to do that math in their heads) and led to questions about whether the world itself, like the television shows I described, was in black & white. And that reminds me that we fading Boomers have lived through quite a bit of history and we should be sharing our stories with the extended families we’re a part of. At the very least, we can write down what we remember or create a video archive. I know the Baker and Lacerenza grandchildren I’m lucky enough to spend time with, couldn’t care less about hearing my stories and reminiscences --- right now. But they are a bright and curious lot and maybe one (or more?), at some point in the future, will want to know what Grandma and Pop-pop lived through. They know we went to Woodstock (not very impressed) and experienced “The Sixties” (the high school age boys have a textbook sense of what that means) --- but we haven’t talked about the Moon Landing or the JFK/MLK/RFK assassinations. There have been some conversations about the Vietnam War but I’m not sure they even know about the Challenger explosion or the Clinton impeachment.
New Year’s, then, has me reflecting on personal history and the larger world. As we approach what seems a momentous Presidential election, we may need to look at history to maintain ballast and perspective (I highly recommend reading Jennifer Rubin’s Opinion Column in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/12/31/history-conflict-unity-nostalgia/).
It may serve us well to reflect on stories from our own journeys as this New Year begins. Rubin’s column reminds us that we are too often nostalgic about “the past,” as opposed to remembering the nitty-gritty and the extreme highs and lows of the reality we lived through. It would be great if the younger members of our families wanted to hear our stories but, whether they do or not, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create some record of your “life well-lived.” A 2025 New Year’s gift, perhaps --- maybe as much to yourself as to your posterity.
Happy New Year.
Coming Soon: Democracy and Capitalism, Part Three