I guess New Year’s isn’t completely arbitrary

I’m writing this, I think, a little later than the post I wrote last week, and I apologize for that, in case anyone has been anxiously waiting.  I have the general intention to keep these posts fairly regular and more or less on the same day of the week, but I’m having at least some mild difficulty keeping it completely consistent thanks to irregular things at work and whatnot.

You never can plan very well for whatnot, can you?

I still haven’t dipped into my old file of blog post topics, though I may need to do that in the near future.  Today I thought I’d talk about the fact that New Years is coming (I’m likely to mention it at least in passing on my main blog tomorrow as well).  I started out thinking about how silly and arbitrary it seems to celebrate New Year’s as if the date has any cosmic significance at all.  And to be fair to myself, the specific date chosen to be the beginning of the year is in fact more or less arbitrary.  But then, as I entertained myself with the possibility of keeping track of my age in Venusian years (I would currently be just shy of 89), I realized that I was not just being pedantic (or whatever the proper term is) I was being quite silly.

After all, because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the seasons on our planet are fairly regular, as are the solstices and equinoxes.  Once humans invented agriculture, it quickly became very useful to keep track of what exact time of year it was…actually, it could even have been useful for keeping track of game animals and wild plants.  And, of course, it’s hard to tell the exact time of year by the sun, let alone the moon.  The “fixed” stars, on the other hand, are quite useful and consistent for this purpose, especially for people who stayed pretty much at one latitude.

So the predictability of the stars and the regularity of the seasons led to the dawn of astronomy (and astrology, unfortunately), and to much of subsequent science.  It can be quite useful to know what time of year it is.  It’s probably less useful to worry about exactly how many times the Earth has gone around the sun since you were born.  I’m trying to think of some objective matter for which knowing one’s age would be useful (outside of parochial, human social matters) and nothing is springing to mind.  If any readers think of anything, feel free to leave a comment.

But keeping track of at least the time of year with a fair amount of precision is useful, and since we could tell that the year started over regularly, after about 365 and a quarter days, I guess it makes sense that people started numbering the years (or designating them in some other way, such as with rats, cows, pigs, monkeys, cocks, dragons, and so on), and keeping track of those numbers.  And it turns out that’s useful for keeping track of the events of history.

But it doesn’t really matter on which day you decide the new year starts.  It makes a certain amount of sense (at least in the northern hemisphere) to have it start after the winter solstice, when things are , in a sense, renewing themselves (though temperature lags behind day length at both ends of the year, which is an interesting fact in and of itself, and reveals something about how much day to day weather depends on the heat absorbed and then radiated by the Earth’s surface).  It would probably make even more sense to have the new year start the day after the solstice, but I guess different committees decided on the months (which were as their name implies related – roughly – with the length of the lunar cycle) than worked on delineating and describing the seasons.

But January 1st is pretty close to the day after the solstice, and the majority of the human population lives in the northern hemisphere, so I guess January 1st is not half bad as a New Year’s Day.  The numbering of years is arbitrary, of course, but having some number can be useful, and as long as people agree on the number (or know how to interconvert between disparate systems) I guess that’s pretty reasonable.

I guess what this post comes down to is:  I’ve decided that I can give my personal approval to the human choice to keep track of the length of the year and even (to a lesser extent) to number the passage of those years.  I’m sure that many of you have been waiting on bated tenterhooks to see what my verdict would be, so I’m pleased to be able to let you unmix your metaphors and get on with more important things.

And whatnot.