New Years

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.

---R. Burns, lame old Scottish poet

Joy and peace, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry's cultural studies cabin. Today we think about the new year.

January first, as you would know if you hadn't slept through tenth grade, does not begin the new year except in our imagination.

Here's a little story. 2,200 years ago (give or take), in a place we call Monte Albรกn, the Zapotecs carved a calendar into a slab of stone six meters tall, and they stood it up like a fin looking edgewise into the sun. Every day at noon, the sun would throw (and still throws) a shadow from that stone as far as it can reach. At noon on the winter solstice every year, the shadow is 4.4 meters long--its personal best. When the Zapotecs saw that long shadow, they knew the new year was at hand. Let the wild rumpus begin!

The Chinese had a calendar 4,600 years ago, and that includes a lot of leap years with 13 months in them. In the West, we know our current new year is in no way the 2014th year; worse than that, it's not even the 2014th year since the birth of Jesus, like you were told. Anno Domi-NOT, buddy.

But how did all this calendar confusion start? you ask. Well, Camper, in the year 525 or so (or 3150, if you're Chinese) there was a monk and sometime rapper named Dionysus Exiguus. Everyone called him Li'l Denny. One day, the pope said, "D, my sundial has stopped. What month was Jesus born?" and Li'l Denny said "He's a Capricorn, Boss, from the days of Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor in Syria." (Look it up, Camper. You know how to use the interwebs.) "Can you be more specific?" said the Pope. 

Well, of course, rappers are improvisers, and Li'l D missed the date by 3 to 7 years. We don't even know, and we can't fix it now, anyway. Theology is like that. But the church had planted its flag in a calendar, and that turned out to be a very big deal.

Point is this, Camper. If you ask the folks in China, Israel, Mongolia, Vietnam, Tibet, Sudan, or Burma which day is New Year's Day, you'll get answers based on lunar/solar cycles, which actually move around a lot. If you ask Islamic friends what year are we in right now, they might tell you it's 1435, and they'd be as right as you are about 2014, or the Chinese are about 4650. None of these folks even have a month named January.

What? you say. No January? Jesus born three years before year 1? Your Uncle Jerry gets a bit dizzy thinking about all this. Until recently, like most Americans, he thought the stars pivoted around Times Square.

As with so many things, young person, the stuff our parents told us about New Year's Day is totally made up. That's not a bad thing, but it's a good thing to know. And it means, if you pay attention, you can get 3 to 47 different new year's days every year. How cool is that.

That's why Your Uncle Jerry makes it a point to cross into the new year as many times per year as possible. His kazoo is well-used; his annual flag of celebration is a many-splendored one. 

Peace and joy.