A new year. A clean slate. A time for toting up the pluses and minuses of the just-completed pass around the sun and predicting the contents of the balance sheet during the next orbit. A time for celebrations and resolutions. In essence, a time for time.
In some ways, it is completely arbitrary and capricious. There is no start/finish line in the circular track that the Earth runs each year, no celestial being standing in the assigned spot, waving a checkered flag and firing a starting gun at the same time. This line drawn in the sands of time is an artificial one. We project on it a deeper significance and then go about making our lists and predictions, our hopes and fears, as if there were some real meaning to it all.
But it is not arbitrary that the New Year arrives at this point in the Earth's orbit. As with all the celebrations of the holiday season, it is tied to what is probably the most important of the many regular and predictable patterns that recur in nature - the winter solstice. The fundamental importance of that day was recognized by virtually every civilization that has called the Northern Hemisphere home since mankind became cognizant of such things.
The solstice is the day that the light stops disappearing and starts returning. If that didn't happen every year, all bets would be off. That's why the date was tracked and marked so carefully. You wanted to make sure it happened.
The holidays that resulted have a wonderful paradox about them - celebrating the light in the midst of the darkest days of the year. They were the most important of the year for many cultures. When Christians got to power, they appropriated the big Roman festival marking this time of the year - Saturnalia - for one of their most important celebrations - Christmas, appropriately because in that faith, the birth of the Christ marks the promise of better days to come at a moment when that seemed like a bleak possibility.
Saturnalia was several days of celebrations that culminated in the beginning of the new year. That is why it is no mistake that New Year's Day occurs when the Northern Hemisphere is tipped about as far from the sun as it is going to get - the new year begins when that sun starts returning.
As we hang up our new calendars and watch - the older of us still in amazement - as our growing array of electronic gadgets automatically update themselves to the calendrical vagaries of 2005, we are tapping into one of the deepest desires of every human civilization: to keep track of time.
To record it and mark it, to track it and analyze it, to observe it, to note it, to wonder at it, to celebrate it, to fear it - this simple, mysterious, fundamental inexorable flow that gives us our life and takes it from us.
Probably no one focused on the time more than the Mayans, the most sophisticated of the civilizations that flourished in the Americas in the centuries before contact with Europe. Many of the complicated and beautiful hieroglyphic inscriptions that they left behind - carved into monuments, painted on vases, written in books - are painstaking accountings of time, tracked in a complex system of interlocking sequences of 20 named days with other named periods of time, their cycles meshing so that no date repeated itself for 52 years.
As the learned Mayans stared out into the mysteries, they seemed to feel that if they could just capture time - if they could mark it and sequence it and keep track of it - they could have some fundamental control over the uncontrollable.
In most civilizations, the holy men and women who studied the calendar and understood its complexities were powerful members of the community. They determined days to celebrate, days to sacrifice, days to fight, days to mourn. Most importantly, they determined days to plant and days to harvest. All of this came in spiritual wrappings, but much of their supernatural authority was undoubtedly because they paid close attention to the natural world, understood the seasons and passed along that wisdom. The vestigial remnants of such observation are evident in thing like The Farmer's Almanac. The Mayans who did this agreed with the wise men who were across a couple of oceans, thousands of miles away, writing in Ecclesiastes, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."
Though they lived in tropical climes not that far north of the equator, the Mayans recognized the importance of the winter solstice. One of their months, Yaxkin, means "new or strong sun." When the Mayan calendar began, the 1st of Yaxkin was the day after the winter solstice.
Part of the Mayan calendar was the 365-day year familiar to us. It consisted of 18 months of 20 days, then a five-day period called Uayeb, considered sort of a bad time when it was best to keep your head low. The problem was that the Earth takes a bit more than 365 days to orbit the sun. So the Mayan calendar started to wander from its original base. It did not take many decades or centuries before 1 Yaxkin was no longer the day after the winter solstice. Time was refusing to be tamed.
When the Europeans showed up in Central America in the 16th century, the Mayans were on the wane. The Aztecs had their own complicated calendar. The Spanish brought Christianity's version of tracking time, intermeshing of cycles of seven named days with 12 months and consecutively numbered years. At that time, the Julian calendar - which dated to Julius Caesar - was in use, but it had its own problems, going a day off every 128 years. Within a few decades, the calendar in use today - the one that makes this a new year - appeared. The Gregorian calendar takes 3,300 years to get a day off.
The Julian calendar had replaced a previous mess in the Roman world that got so complicated and out of whack that it enabled priests and politicians to exploit its problems by adding days here and there to extend their rule. When the change to the Gregorian calendar was made - it cleared up many of the Julian calendar's flaws by adding more leap years - keeping track of time in Europe was, as with the Mayans, in the hands of the holy men. The calendar takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who decreed its use in 1582.
The Catholic countries followed that order, but the Protestant countries clung to the Julian version. That included Great Britain and the United States, which did not make the change until the 18th century. When that happened, George Washington is said to have recalculated his March Julian calendar birthday to February 22nd in the Gregorian version, determining the date of the later national holiday.
Our calendar is not aesthetically appealing, with weeks a seemingly randomly seven days long, with months of three lengths - 28, 30 and 31 days - with the ninth, 10th and 11th month having names that mean seventh, eighth and ninth; and with all sorts of holidays - such as Easter and Hanukkah - that depend on lunar, not solar, cycles - falling on various days in various years.
It's a mess. This would not do for the enlightened characters who brought us the French Revolution. They decreed the metric system of calendars for their new republic. Twelve months, all of 30 days, were followed by an additional five or six-day Uayab-like period of celebrations. The months were divided into three 10-day weeks, with the days given fancy Latin names that basically meant one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. It all seemed so rational and logical. It also didn't work, in part for the some of the same reasons the Julian calendar had problems, but mainly because working people who were used to a day of rest every seven days now had to wait 10.
Still, the search for a perfect calendar continues. Richard Conn Henry, a Johns Hopkins University physicist and astronomer, has made a recent entry in the calendar sweepstakes.
With Henry's calendar, some months would lose a day and others would gain one and most years would end after 364 days. An extra seven-day week would be introduced every few years to make things come out even.
That extra week reflects a basic calendar problem: They are all constantly a bit off, and when they get far enough off - whether it's every four years or every 3,300 - require some adjustment to get them approximately back on track. Despite efforts to track the hours and days and weeks and years that date to the dawn on consciousness, time continues to slip out of our grasp.
This is mirrored in the higher levels of physics. In his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein explained that time was another dimension, equivalent to the three spatial dimensions that form the daily stage of our lives. The speed you are traveling affects how you experience time.
Relativity explained how forces like gravity worked on large scales. But get down to the subatomic level, where the equations of quantum mechanics describe a much more chaotic scene, and time flies off in unpredictable directions. String theory is one of the latest attempts to bring time and the other dimensions and forces into a rational system. It's no simple task. To pull it off, the string theorists say, you need another dozen or so dimensions.
So the new year is at once a reality - the Earth has made another trip around the sun - and an illusion. Time is not seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, decades, centuries, millenniums. Those are sequences we have imposed on it as part of our species' endless attempts to tame and understand it.
But time remains seamless and elusive, as mysterious as the vast cosmos that surrounds this tiny cocoon of Earth, a spinning sphere that happens to take a certain amount of time to make one orbit. If we are lucky, we get to experience 70 or 80 or 90 of those trips, a blink of the eye in the billions that the Earth has made and the billions more to come.
So, as you hang up the new calendars this weekend, realize that you are joining your human ancestors in trying to tame the untamable, explain the inexplicable, understand the incomprehensible.
It's about time. Happy New Year.