Welcome to the Real New Year

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wildflowers-1353003-1919x1278The calendar doesn’t say summer ended during that first week of September, but we all know it did. How many of us squeezed out those last few days, those last few hours, those last few minutes, together with family, friends, or just within our own thoughts. Each year, the long Labor Day weekend becomes a bittersweet reminder of the promises of June, soon to become forever just another memory.

For me it’s the tastes, the smells, and the sounds I remember most. They’re all so interwoven I can no longer distinguish one sense from another. Is it the taste of the aroma from a field full of wildflowers? Is it the smell of those late summer nights, its muggy air thick with the chirps of crickets and twinkling with the flicker of fire flies? Is it the sound of those sumptuous family meals, whether cookouts, roasts, or omnipresent macaroni dishes? It’s all a blur, a collage of happiness, a pleasant memorial to the waning moments of freedom.

What I most forlornly recall, though, are the last visits. For far too many times, the unofficial closing days of summer brought with them people whom I rarely saw, some who I would never see again. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as the years of separation grow, so too does the hole in my soul. I think, more than the people themselves, it is that time, a time long past, that causes me to sweep a solitary drop of remembrance from my otherwise dry eyes. Funny thing, you wouldn’t think any of these individuals would have had such an impact. That’s why I think they are only a metaphor.

Of course, just as we reach the melancholy nadir from which there seems no escape, we wake up very early one weekday morning to a brand new world. This world comes fresh as the morning dew, (those particular drops themselves merely the final remnants of that final muggy night). But we don’t think of the previous evening. We look instead towards this new, unfolding, dawn. For we know what lies ahead is a tome of unwritten pages – pages we will soon have the privilege to write upon ourselves. Yes. We’re comforted knowing our fate is in our hands.

By the time the solstice actually occurs, this unchartered dominion makes the laborious weight of the initial days of September look small. We’re suddenly inundated with a cavalcade of new friends, new surroundings, and, indeed, what feels like an invigorating new charge in our lives. We’re presented with lessons to learn, activities to pursue, and goals to accomplish. We are at once young again, no matter our age.

The mark of any official “New Year” appears arbitrary at best. Different cultures have their own starting points. From most of us, it’s January 1st. There’s nothing special about that date, other than the fact the Romans decided January would be the first month of the year; hence, January 1st would be the first day of the year. Actually, I’m being charitable here. The Roman calendar was a mess. The first “first” month was neither January (nor its Latin counterpart) nor was the first day call the “1st” (not even in the Roman numeral version of “I”).

Said to have been started by Romulus (of “Romulus and Remus” fame, the legendary founders of the city of Rome), the original Roman calendar did not have a month of January (or February, for that matter). So, the beginning of the year was March 1st. Actually, the name of the month was “Martius” and the Romans didn’t number the days. They called the first day “Kalendae.” So the first day of the year was really the “Kalandae of Martius.” Incidentally, the Romans only labeled only two other days of the month: “Idus,” representing either the 13th day or 15th day of the month, depending on the month (and from which Shakespeare famously wrote “the Ides of March”); and, “Nonae,” the ninth day before Idus. The Romans referred to all other days in terms of these three markers. So, for example, the day after Kalandae (i.e., the second day of the month) would be called “the fifth day before Nonae.”

Things got more confusing during the reign of Roman king Numa Pompilius (ca. 715BC-673BC) when, in 713BC, he added – in this order – the months of “Februarius” (February) and “Ianuarius” (January). The Kalandae of Martius still retained the honor of being the first day of the New Year. That changed in 450BC when the order of Februarius and Ianuarius were flipped, moving Februarius after Ianuarius and before Martius. At the same time, the Kalandae of Ianuarius became the start of the New Year. Problems persisted as months were randomly added on an ad hoc basis to please whatever politician needed pleasing.

Julius Caesar cleared this whole thing up when, in 45BC, he introduced what we now call the “Juilan Calendar.” This was actually a pretty good calendar. It even accounted for Leap Years. There was this little problem – the astronomical term is “trepidation” – that made the actual solar year a little bit less than 365 ¼ days (that ¼ day was why we had a Leap Day every 4 years). In October of 1582AD a new calendar was introduced. The “Gregorian” calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII) fixed the problem by removing the Leap Day in century years, unless that century year is divisible by 400 (that’s why we had a Leap Day in the year 2000 but not in the years 1700, 1800, and 1900). The Gregorian Calendar also wiped out ten days, just to get things back in line.

I’ll skip the part about what countries used which days to signal the New Year, even after they all agreed to use the Gregorian calendar. (Greece, by the way, was the last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar – and that wasn’t until 1923!) Other countries (most notably China) still use a different “first day of the year.” Religions also have their own New Year days. The Jewish Rosh Hashanah occurs this time of year (in 2016 it begins in the evening of October 2nd and ends in the evening of October 4th). For Catholics, Advent represents the beginning of its liturgical year. Advent starts the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30th, which means it starts between November 28th and December 3rd.

So you see, where you decide to begin the New Year depends on you. For many of us, the start of the school year represents a natural point to mark the New Year. After all, the new school years offers so many new beginnings for so many people. It’s obvious for students, teachers, and administrators. But it also holds true for parents, grandparents, and other family members. Finally, even if you don’t have a child in school (including college), you still see “a change in the season.” Traffic patterns change as the time for vacations has drawn to a close (and school buses slow things down). With fewer people on vacation, it’s easier to get work done since you don’t have to wait for the person you’re trying to reach to return to the office.

And let’s not forget, it’s also the start of football season!

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