Sunday, January 01, 2017

When Does a New Year Really Begin?

At a recent meeting of the Interfaith Roundtable in Winnipeg, a monthly gathering of people from a wide array of spiritual traditions, there was a robust conversation about the nature of holidays and holy days – what they are, what they mean to us, how they differ between cultures and traditions, and how there are similarities that cross cultures and bridge traditions. The conversation was driven, of course, by the looming Christmas season, which dominates celebrations here in North America, even though most of the people in the room were from other religious backgrounds. One of the seemingly universal characteristics we discerned about holidays was the significance of seasonal changes that lie behind many of them, even when they are otherwise connected with historical events or spiritual teachings.

I observed that, while holidays are days we set apart as somehow special or sacred, there is a measure of arbitrariness involved in which days a society or group selects to set apart for such honour. In many cases, the origin of a holiday is lost in the dim recesses of history and often involves a layering of traditions, one on top of another, no matter how much we may try to pinpoint its origin and purpose. Following the meeting, it dawned on me that New Year’s Day may be the quintessential illustration of an arbitrary choice for a holiday.

When does a new year really begin? How real are the numbers we attach to a given year when the selection of a starting point for our numbering was arbitrary to begin with? How do we reconcile the fact that different cultures employ different starting points in numbering the years? And how did January 1st earn the honour of being reckoned as the first day of the year? Of course, an additional question that some might ask is, who cares?

In pagan Iceland, the year was divided into two equal parts, summer and winter, and human lives were counted not in years but in winters. Ethnologist Árni Björnsson, who is arguably Iceland’s leading authority on calendars and holidays, says that Sumardagurinn fyrsti, the first day of summer, which falls between April 19th and 25th in modern terms, marked the beginning of a new year in ancient Iceland, although there was no New Year’s Day as such. And Icelanders have continued to mark the first day of summer right down to the present. Gifts were exchanged on this day, at least since the Reformation, and small tasks were practiced to symbolically mark the arrival of the growing season, which was still more apparent than real. The churches held worship on this day, until the practice was banned by the king in 1744, and the day was considered an auspicious time for fortune-telling. Indeed, there are similarities in the folklore attached to each of the days that have been successively thought to mark the beginning of the year.

In the 12th century, Ari the Wise pegged the beginning of the year on September 1st, in keeping with papal practice, but the Icelandic church itself regarded Christmas Day as the beginning of the year. In 1540, a marginal note in the first published version of the New Testament in Icelandic shows that January 1st had come to be accepted by then as the first day of a new year, at least in the eyes of the church and the academy. The first recorded New Year’s party in Iceland (at least in the modern sense) was hosted by Rev. Þórður Jónsson of Hítardalur and his wife, Helga Árnadóttir, in the 17th century, although there were hints of feasts as early as the 13th century. And, in 1791, the first known Gamlársköld (Old Year’s Eve) bonfire was mentioned by Dr. Sveinn Pálsson.

Needless to say, even after New Year’s Day became firmly attached to January 1st, the day itself moved when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian. Around the world, different cultures have reckoned the beginning of the year at different times, so the first day of the year has fallen in nearly every month at some time and in some place.

So every day marks the beginning of a new year, in a sense, depending on how we mark the flow of time. By convention, though, our heritage now sets aside January 1st each year as New Year’s Day – a day to reflect upon the year that has passed and leave it to the keeping of sacred memory; a day to ponder the year ahead and embrace its hope, as best we can.

This post appears as the editorial in the January 1, 2017, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.