As this is my very last opportunity in 2018 to get good and cranky over things that people do wrong, it seemed an apt time to discuss the undeniable, mind-bending stupidity of the popular belief that something magically changes at the precise moment when New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day.
All across our land, people who long ago stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, and the fair and accurate counting of our votes nevertheless still harbor the blind faith, publicly or privately, consciously or subconsciously, that when the clock strikes twelve on that extra-special night, the universe shifts, making all things new again. Indeed, they plan on it for weeks, contemplating and even writing lists of the many fantastic life improvements they'll be making once they're on the other side of the transfiguring portal.
This group of believers, I hasten to note, includes many who carry a surprising level of disdain for other forms of faith. They find it ridiculous to think that God could have created the earth in seven days, or that lamp oil could have lasted for eight, or that five loaves and two fish could have fed a multitude, but they’re damned sure something happens on the thirty-first at precisely twelve. Many will stay awake just so as not to miss the wondrous midnight miracle by which they will be instantly transformed from doughy, undisciplined, social-media-addicted wastrels into spiritual, well-read, vegan Olympians volunteering with the Peace Corps.
Some attend gatherings and share the blessed experience. Others take to the streets—without the vaguest sense of embarrassment—joining shivering, tightly-packed, foolishly attired, drunken mobs to await the thrill of watching numbers change, loudly whooping in joyous celebration when it happens.
All this, of course, is naught but superstition. And here's the simple proof: The only reason we even observe this particular date and time as the start of a new year is because some ancient guy way back in the olden days decided to come up with a cyclical system for measuring time which eventually was called a calendar, and at some point, someone decided to begin each new cycle on January 1st. And that’s all there is to it.
Actually, that’s not all there is to it. Would to God that it were.
The awkward truth is that the system for counting months and years has been through an unsettling number of revisions over the centuries. If you ever have too much time on your hands and find yourself overtaken by a masochistic desire to research the subject, I wish you the best of luck in grasping it all. Among other things, you will discover (as I did just now when attempting to browse the internet for a simple account of the matter), that some of these revisions to the calendar system were based on whatever was deemed most convenient for holiday scheduling. Other iterations were politically motivated (“My term’s not over yet, see? I just made this year twelve years long.”). And sometimes the calendar was recalibrated to correct previous erroneous calculations, like the time they discovered a math error and had to skip ten days forward just to catch up. This is all true, according to several minutes of research.
Did you know that at one point, the annual calendar started In March and lasted only ten months? Then there was that one crazy year that was 455 days long. (With no sense of irony, they called that one “the last year of confusion.” Turned out they were off by 11 minutes and 14 seconds and had scrap that calendar too.)
Here's a fun fact: Even our current system, the Gregorian calendar, is too long by 26 seconds, which means that by the year 4049, it will be a full day ahead of the solar year. Great. What are we supposed to do then? I suppose we’ll have to celebrate New Year’s Eve on December 30th and hope the magic is transferrable. The beginning of a new year is a goalpost that has moved way too many times to be taken seriously as some sort of cosmic marker. So, as nice as the fairy tale of getting a fresh start with an assist from the universe may be, it simply doesn’t pass the logic test. And yet, this goofy superstition is stubbornly clung to by otherwise sane, grown-up people who ought to know better than to buy into such mythology. And so, against all evidence and past experience, they insist on believing that things will be different next year.
They will not.
Midnight on December 31st is a transition from one day to the next, just like any other. And though we seem to suffer from group amnesia on this point, this coming January 1st, just like all January 1sts, will be heartbreakingly similar to December 31st in every possible way. It always is.
But if anyone reading this is gullible enough to believe otherwise, I have great news for you. Should you find yourself around January 2nd or so having already failed in your New Year’s resolutions, you can switch back to the Julian calendar and take another shot at it in a few days when it’s the new year all over again.