New years and bottom lines

The statue of Janus on the Roman Forum

Another year is coming to an end. Another one is just around the corner, and the corner is a thin line separating the two, a number in the calendar, a revolution made complete. For many it is simply a convention. A friend told me last week that the new year is not a big deal because someone just decided that the odometer should reset on the first day of January. Years are constructions, the rotations are man-made, as opposed to the rotation of the planet, which hasn’t been decided in any human court.

Except of course that years are natural. The human preoccupation with time has always been integrative, a desire to align human activity with the natural world. Human life and natural life, colliding under the umpireship of demarcation and recurrency. The invention of time is, in this sense, a human response to the environment, like nutrition, kinship, and the organisation of territory.

Every culture today is heir to a time-keeping tradition. Ours is one whose foundation was laid in ancient Rome, developed during the Middle Ages and perfected in the modern period. The history of our space and time is also the history of our time-keeping.

The ancient Romans and the medievals after them referred to new year’s day as the calends of January. The calends or kalendae were the beginning of each month, a word of unknown derivation, but whose distant ancestor recalls the Proto-Indo-European root *kelh, to summon. In the beginning, there’s the invocation, calling the new year in.

January wasn’t a coincidental month either, as the name harked back to Janus, the god of beginnings, the god of two faces, one looking back, one forward. Beginnings are nothing without endings. To move on is to get further away. To enter one space is to leave another.

As the new year approches, let us look back as well as forward. Whether you think 2021 was an annus horribilis, an annus mirabilis (if you think that, please get in touch with me immediately) or simply an annus vulgaris, it’s worth considering what’s coming to an end, any lessons learned and yearnings earned.

And prepare to welcome the new year, a new dawn, a new beginning.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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