Dec 30, 2008

For Auld Lang Syne

Happy New Year, Cherubs at Moon

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New Year's Eve is probably my least favorite holiday. Something about the forced frivolity over the single tick of a clock. I've always felt tremendous pressure to have a lot of fun on New Year's, whether I've felt like it or not. I've spent huge sums of money, only to find myself sitting the corner of some bar, crying into my champagne. Why? Boredom. Boredom and the incredible sense of peer pressure to have mad, stupid fun. The best New Year's Eves I've ever spent have been quiet gatherings with family and friends, so that's how I'll be spending this one. If I'm lucky I won't even know when the ball drops. It will slip quietly away like any other moment. Time simply passes. That's it's nature.

I realized this morning that I had no idea how the tradition of celebrating New Year's Eve began. Nor, how it was determined that January 1st was designated the beginning of the year. Because understanding the underlying and forgotten myths that weave quietly through our traditions is my passion, I did a bit of googling. It's really kind of interesting. This, of course, pertains to New Years in our Gregorian calendar. The year has many different start dates around the world. But, we can thank Julius Caesar for placing our holiday in the bitter cold days following the solstice.

The Romans continued to observe the New Year in late March, but their calendar was continually meddled with by a number of emperors so that the calendar became out of synchronization with the sun. To set the calendar right, the Roman senate declared January 1st as the beginning of the New Year in 153 BC.

Tampering continued until Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar in 46 BC, once again establishing January 1st as the New Year. But in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days.

The first of January was dedicated by the Romans to their God Janus of Gates and Doors — a very old Italian god — commonly portrayed with 2 faces … one regarding what is behind and the other looking toward what lies ahead. Hence, Janus represents the reflection on the activities of an old year while looking forward to the new.

January: Janus

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From a mythological standpoint, that at least makes sense, marking a metaphorical threshold into the new year.

From there, things got even more interesting.

Caesar celebrated the first January 1 New Year by ordering the violent routing of revolutionary Jewish forces in the Galilee. Eyewitnesses say blood flowed in the streets. In later years, Roman pagans observed the New Year by engaging in drunken orgies -- a ritual they believed constituted a personal re-enacting of the chaotic world that existed before the cosmos was ordered by the gods.

As Christianity spread, pagan holidays were either incorporated into the Christian calendar or abandoned altogether. By the early medieval period most of Christian Europe regarded Annunciation Day (March 25) as the beginning of the year. (According to Catholic tradition, Annunciation Day commemorates the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would be impregnated by G-d and conceive a son to be called Jesus.)

After William the Conqueror (AKA "William the Bastard" and "William of Normandy") became King of England on December 25, 1066, he decreed that the English return to the date established by the Roman pagans, January 1. This move ensured that the commemoration of Jesus' birthday (December 25) would align with William's coronation, and the commemoration of Jesus' circumcision (January 1) would start the new year - thus rooting the English and Christian calendars and his own Coronation). William's innovation was eventually rejected, and England rejoined the rest of the Christian world and returned to celebrating New Years Day on March 25.

So we're clear, under an ancient Christian calendar what we're actually celebrating is a Bris. The date became firmly solidified again under Pope Gregory XIII; he of the Gregorian calendar.

On New Years Day 1577 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, under pain of death, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services. On Year Years Day 1578 Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a "House of Conversion" to convert Jews to Christianity. On Yew Years 1581 Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate all sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the campaign.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1 - supposedly the day on which Jesus' circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity and the death of Judaism - was reserved for anti-Jewish activities: synagogue and book burnings, public tortures, and simple murder.

Is it any wonder I hate this holiday?

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