Well, we’ve done it again. This old world has made another complete revolution, the ball has dropped from its lofty height over Times Square, and we have proclaimed a new year—for much of the world it is now 2024.
Of course, it is not really 2024. The Earth has been accomplishing its rotation for a lot longer than humans have existed. Did dinos disco dance to usher in a new year before their own flaming ball descended from the heavens?
Humans have been calculating the years for a lot longer than western cultures have existed. And different cultures have different starting points. In the Hebrew calendar, for instance, it is now 5784, dating back to the supposed creation of the world, and the Buddhist calendar proclaims it to be 2567, dating from the supposed birth of Lord Buddha.
In the old, old days dating was more accurate. The reigns of sovereigns were the usual way of demarking when something happened, so you might read “in the fourteenth year of King so-and-so’s reign.” This kind of thing lingered on long after Christians started counting from Christ’s birth. In the Canaan History Center, which I run as town historian, I have pre-Revolutionary deeds that declare the transaction took place “in the seventh year of the reign” (1767) of George III.
It was a comfy—and pretty much incontrovertible—means of reckoning time, but extensive interactions between cultures made a common denominator necessary and the world eventually adopted the calendar created by Christians. But even here, the math is muddy.
In the year we now call 525, a monk named Dionysius Exguus decided that a new calendar was needed because of a long-standing controversy over the day on which Easter should be celebrated. So, Dionysius Exguus counted back on his fingers and decided when Jesus was born. So far, so good—except he was off by several years. Historians now believe Jesus was born sometime between 4 and 6 BC, so really it is now 2028, 2029 or 2030.
There is evidence that people celebrated the start of a new year more than 4,000 years ago. The Mesopotamians celebrated it with the coming of the new moon after the Spring Equinox in March. That tradition held sway until Julius Caesar decided in 45 BC to move the holiday to January 1 to honor the month’s namesake, Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. Janus’ two faces allowed him to look forward into the future as well as backwards into the past—anyone care to sing a chorus of Auld Lang Syne? That longing for a better future, and nostalgia for the past, has been an earmark of the holiday ever since.
Caesar didn’t know, of course, that it was 45 BC because Christ had yet to be born. Nor did he know that that church that grew up around the figure of the Messiah would eventually spread his Julian calendar around the world. Indeed, he didn’t get to enjoy for long the public’s plaudits for creating a whoopie party in the dreariest time of the year. Only a year later Janus would be looking back at Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC (remember, you must count down during the era before Christ).
The Julian calendar had some built-in problems, however. It was slightly longer than the solar year, being 365.25 days long. Thus, the Julian year produced one extra day every four years. No biggie—right? A simple leap year solved the problem. Unfortunately, even this calculation was not entirely accurate—it’s approximately 11 minutes less and over the next 1,627 years the calendar became 11 days out of whack. So, in 1582, Pope Gregory decreed that the day after the Oct. 4 should be Oct. 15, thus correcting the error.
Not everyone fell into line immediately and different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar at different times. In Great Britain, the new calendar was not adopted until September 1752. To deal with the discrepancy of days, it was ordered that Sept. 3, 1752, would be immediately followed by Sept. 14, 1752. This led to crowds of people on the streets demanding, “Give us back our 11 days!” They didn’t get the days back, so today we celebrate George Washington’s birth on February 22, rather than Feb. 11, when he was actually born.
In recent years, we have added a new wrinkle to all this counting. The business and political worlds may have agreed to use the Gregorian calendar, but different religions were uncomfortable with its terminology—BC, denoting the time before the birth of Christ, and Anno Domini, meaning “the year of our Lord.” The devotional implications hit a sour note with the world’s non-Christian masses.
So, what’s in a name in a world now accustomed to rebranding? The addition of a single letter changed BC to BCE (Before the Common Era). To eliminate Anno Domini, terminology was changed to Common Era—as in 2024 CE. The starting point—as inaccurate as it is—is still the same, but names have been changed to protect the innocent.
2023 was a rocky road, as was 2022, 2021, 2020—that was a tough one by any standards—as were most of the year’s preceding it that I can remember. I used to take my son when he was a child to First Night celebrations in Boston and watched as the light show counted down the seconds to the New Year. Invariably I wished the passing year, with all its trials, would end faster, only to know in my heart that the new year would be no different for the ticking of a clock.
But hope springs eternal. The world is in a perilous place today, but, as always, this new year brings the potential change—for creating peace, for alleviating poverty, for rebuilding the environmental health of the planet and so much more—if only we don’t drop the ball.
Kathryn Boughton is Editor of the Kent Good Times Dispatch. The views expressed in Out on a Limb are hers alone, and do not represent the opinions of members of the Board of Directors of Kent News Inc., the parent company of the Kent GTD.