New Year’s is upon us once again. For those who care about such things, the new year, which falls on January 1st and marks the beginning of a twelve-month cycle, is based on the Gregorian calendar, the most widely accepted civil calendar in the world. Ancient civilizations, including the Greeks and the early Romans, had calendars based on lunar cycles. The Roman calendar counted the days of the months backwards from three points—the Nones, the Ides and the Kalends—so the beginning of the month would coincide with the observed lunar crescent. Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar to align with the movement of the sun (I wonder if he and his assassins were using different calendars?). At 365.25 days long, the calculated length of a year was still mathematically imprecise enough so it didn’t line up with the solar cycle. The Catholic Church, concerned the Easter celebration might drift too far from the spring equinox, developed the Gregorian calendar which adjusts for a 365.2525 day cycle with a leap day every four years. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, uses the Julian calendar for moveable feasts, which is why their new year starts January 14th, and the Coptic and Chinese new years’ days fall somewhere else altogether.
Are you with me so far?
Whether we celebrate the year beginning on January 1st, January 14th or in the fall according to the Jewish lunar calendar, a new year represents a new beginning, do-over, the ultimate mulligan. Never mind all the things we didn’t do or all the bad things that happened to us in the previous year. It’s clean slate time. We make resolutions: lose that weight, clear out that closet, read that book. Learn a language, learn to cook, make a trip. There’s a measure of control that attaches to lists like these: especially if we can tick off tasks as they are achieved. Sometimes we make more ethereal pledges: to live more fully or more honestly, to be nicer or more empathetic, to give more and listen more and do more; to be better people.
The idea of making promises we probably can’t keep is laughable on some level So we jest about the improbability of lists made each late December. One friend, riffing off a self-help book, vows to be physically perfect. Another offers to achieve all of her friends’ collective desires. What a pal!
Okay, we joke but let’s be honest, we’re all attracted to the idea of new beginnings. We’re not immune to optimism, and the idea we might improve our condition is supremely appealing. What’s more powerful, more uplifting than imagining we might restructure our coming year—or the rest of our lives—as we wish.
Every year I roll my eyes at our collective obsession with January resolutions. Yet I also find myself formulating strategies for getting myself out of the winter doldrums and turning my attention away from the obvious passage of time. It seems to happen at the end of December; or whenever I need a spiritual kick in the pants—whenever a frisson of despair or an awareness of my own mortality threatens my equilibrium.
Resolutions may be promises but they’re also plans. Plans help us find and redefine purpose and purpose is what gets us up in the morning. In this last week of the old year, I’ve contacted an organization whose work I admire to let the leadership know I wanted to be on the board of directors. To my great delight, the interest appears reciprocal. But how would I have known if I hadn’t, well resolved to be more involved and to ask for what I wanted? I’m a big fan of flexibility; after all, plenty of things simply don’t go our way. On the other hand, there’s much to be said for being resolute.
New plans for new years make sense. Nature is cyclical; our calendars acknowledge as much. For every winter, there’s a spring; for every death, a birth; for every end, a beginning. We choose whether to focus on the starting line or the race’s end. I figure I’ll have time for the latter when my own death is imminent and inevitable. In the meantime, I resolve to stay as fully alive and committed as I’m able.