As we approach an (anthropologically speaking) random start of a new calendar year,* the persistence of celebrations marking the evening highlights, to my mind, the strong human need to note and mark significant points within life. Across numerous human cultures (if not all of them) humans have celebrated similar times of the year with analogous sorts of festivities, and this has been true across large spans of space and time. Some of these similarities are due to migrations such as those of the various Indo-European-speaking peoples, but the phenomena are more widespread than just the Indo-Europeans, and the parallels seem to point to some sort of common human condition: either the need to understand our position in the world through marking the seasonal cycles, or else some psychological needs (not necessarily mutually exclusive). These include widespread fire festivals vaguely around late October or November, typically involving ancestors and the dead; solstice festivals connected with observations of the sun; calendrical new years starting around one of the equinoxes, often including various kinds of upside-down festivals (where the poor act rich, etc). The modern world has increasingly lost these sorts of rituals and observances, even where the pagan practices had survived well into Christian times. Perhaps related to the “disenchantment” of the world effected by Modernism, or its perceived religious connections, such festivals have lost ground among most groups in the West. Yet the Julian New Year of January 1st has survived, and seems to grow increasingly popular. While marking nothing more (astronomically) significant than an arbitrary day, it seems to show that people still feel a need to notice the passing of time. The various symbolism still used appears to appropriate similar kinds which used to be associated with other sorts of festivals: of renewal (like spring and new years festivals of old), the old hiemal year (from midwinters festival), even remnants of penitential instincts which preceeded more religious festivals.
I wonder, with the dual impulses of “secularization” and a post-modern re-recogition of religion and ritual, where western cultures will go in terms of calendrical observances in the future. Yuletide has triumphed, though Christmas is dying; New Year’s Eve seems to go on with increasing strength; Easter has all but disappeared. Will new festivals be created, old ones remembered, or will people become and feel increasingly disconnected from the natural rhythms of the year and from a communal sense of belonging and identity fostered by shared calendars? Can a new Julius Ceasar reshape the way time is marked in the coming years? In the meantime, happy new year to you all.
*Originally the Roman new year (as most Ancient Near Eastern and Indo-European calendars) started in the spring around the Spring Equinox. Our present western, Gregorian calendar still remembers this in the names of the months, the last four of which are still numbered from March (Sept/7, Oct/8, Nov/9, Dec/10). When Julius reformed the calendar to make it a non-lunar, solar calendar, he altered the first month of the year to coincide with administrative considerations. This made the new year (Jan 1) no longer correspond with any other typical new year (either equinox) or even with a solstice, the other commonly marked season.