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.