Photo of an emblem of Janus above a door

Stroke of Midnight

Where were you last night when 2013 turned into 2014? Is that where you’d wanted to be?

The headline news item on the radio this morning was that people around the world were celebrating the new year (in this case, somewhere in South America had just hit midnight). What was once a single moment of celebration has turned into the most predictable rolling news item of the year. The Internet has allowed us to celebrate the new year on the hour every hour for 24 hours in a row.

Photo of fireworks at Sydney
Sydney celebrates the New Year
Picture: Adam Berk
License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think this trend towards rolling global coverage of new year hit its zenith as Sydney ushered in the new millennium in 2000, with particular media attention not just because it is the first major city that side of the International Date Line because it was to host the Olympics a few months later. Now, of course, cities blow funds on fireworks in order to gain global exposure and a perceived seat on the world stage. London excels at this.

And the new year isn’t just celebrated 24 times each year on the rolling news channels – it’s celebrated on different days in different ways. The Chinese New Year will be celebrated on 31 January (it’s the year of the Horse). The Islamic New Year won’t occur until 24-25 October. A month earlier, on 24-25 September, Jews will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, a festival once celebrated as the Feast of Trumpets. This marked the turn of the agricultural year, but more significantly ushers in a month of religious festivals that includes the Day of Atonement.

The modern significance of the New Year is one of old things being over and new things beginning. January itself is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. In this role, Janus was seen to represent transitions, thus opening and closing, war and peace, entering and exiting, and so forth. He was depicted with two faces, one looking to the past and one to the future. (For this reason he is sometimes seen as the god of politics.) He is also the… er… butt of purile prank phone calls, as this weatherman found out during a live broadcast.The church calendar doesn’t celebrate the New Year because the new beginnings in Christianity aren’t pegged to the seasons but to the gospel. It’s commonly asserted that Easter subsumed an existing spring-time new-beginnings festival that occurred around the same time in the pre-Christian pagan West, but Easter is celebrated when it is because of the Jewish Passover and the theological link between his death and the tradition of the lamb that made possible the exodus.

Photo of an emblem of Janus above a door
Janus depicted above a door, as the entrance and exit
Picture: Groume
License: CC BY-SA 2.0

No, Easter isn’t Christianity’s new-beginnings celebration. The closest thing the church has, historically, does occur around the same time, though. Until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in England – only about 250 years ago – we celebrated the New Year on 25th March, which marks the Annunciation to Mary (i.e. the visit of the angel nine months before Christmas). This was the starting pistol of the gospel story (after the Old Testament pre-match build-up). It is a fitting day for a New Year celebration, concerned not with the birth of chicks, or the green shoots of vegetation emerging, but with the proclamation that the king of the everlasting kingdom is coming, and he is the son of the Most High.

Incidentally, 1st January is a Holy Day in the church calendar, but not because of the New Year. Rather, it is the naming and circumcision of Jesus (i.e. the traditional eight days after his birth). Presumably this was something of a formality for Mary because the name was settled at the Annunciation: “and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel said, and she did.

1st January, then, isn’t and shouldn’t be the most significant new-beginnings day of the year. It’s a relatively modern convention. And a particularly uncomfortable one at that, especially for people who don’t like kissing strangers at an appointed hour and linking arms in a bizarre backwards formation to sing a song that is aired once a year, always late at night and usually drunkenly, ensuring that nobody whatsoever knows the lyrics. It’s some comfort that the Queen seems thoroughly perplexed by the whole thing.

Where was I last night when  2013 turned into 2014? In bed, asleep. Is that where I’d wanted to be? Absolutely.

London, N7
Posted on 01/01/2014  •  757 words

Listening to: Just Give Me a Reason by P!nk feat. Nate Reuss