On December 31, 2011, I attended a concert with my new bride. Mary and I counted down the final seconds of the year in chorus with a few thousand other concertgoers before we all erupted into a celebration of a new year new beginnings. Hundreds of millions of people around the world partied in a similar fashion and then hurried home to replace their “I Can Has Cheezburger” wall calendars with the 2012 edition.
So why all the New Year’s Eve hullabaloo? What is it that makes the month of January so special? For one thing, it’s a good time to own a gym, and getting healthy has topped the list of New Year’s resolutions for as long as most of us can remember.
Of course, now that the confetti has been cleared and the Christmas candy has been replaced with Valentine’s Day samplers on store shelves, we are making the transition back to normal life and trying to remember to write “2012” instead of “2011” on everything. But before we start counting the days till summer vacation, let’s take a moment to reflect on the importance of marking time as a family.
The earliest New Year’s celebration on record goes back to Mesopotamia around 2000 BC and was celebrated by the Babylonians on the vernal equinox in what is now late March. Indeed, January 1 didn’t mark the beginning of the new year until a 365-day solar calendar replaced the lunar calendar in the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
So is January 1 any more significant than March 1 in the grand scheme of things? Would it make a difference if we chose to celebrate the new year on June 6? For that matter, is keeping track of the passage of time any more than just a convenience and tradition? Many think so.
Michel Siffre was a chronobiologist—a scientist who studies the relationship between time and living things—who set out on an ambitious self-experiment in 1962. Siffre spent two months in an underground cave without sight of the sun, a clock, or calendar. His goal was to observe how the normal rhythms of life (eating, sleeping, thinking, etc.) would be affected given an inability to measure the passage of time:
Very quickly Siffre’s memory deteriorated. In the dreary darkness, his days melded into one another and became one continuous, indistinguishable blob. Since there was nobody to talk to, and not much to do, there was nothing novel to impress itself upon his memory. . . . At some point he stopped being able to remember what happened even the day before. . . . He became effectively amnesic. When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14, the day his experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20 in his journal. He thought only a month had gone by.1
Deprived of an awareness of time passing, Siffre’s ability to attach meaning to his experiences—and to hang onto them—fell apart.
We tend to think that celebrating a new year is a Western peculiarity, fitting in with our attention to schedules, clocks, and watches. (I once heard that some Africans think Americans wear their gods on their wrists because of the devotion they have to them.) Siffre’s story seems to suggest otherwise. In fact, even the most laid-back cultures—those whose seeming disregard for schedules boggles the average American—have their own ways of observing time, their own calendars they keep. Ordering the passing of moments, whether through the course of a day or a lifetime, is part of who we are as people created by God to live within the framework of time and equipped with an ability to remember and forget.
Making Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick
Even though there’s nothing intrinsic to January days that make them an ideal time for improving oneself, there is something about the changing of the calendar that gives us a feeling of a fresh start, a second chance, an unblemished year. (If you haven’t yet made your resolutions for the new year, and you’re looking for suggestions, here’s a random resolution generator to give you some ideas.)
So why do so many New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside by February? I would suggest it’s our tendency towards homeostasis. The word “homeostasis” often appears in conversations about biology and refers to the tendency of the body’s systems to maintain internal stability and compensate for disruptive stimuli. Author George Leonard discusses in his book Mastery how our bodies naturally seek to prevent us from making drastic lifestyle changes, even if it is detrimental to us, such as when an overweight person starts a new exercise program. Emotionally, people also tend toward homeostasis when making lifestyle choices. If it’s true that we cling to normalcy, it’s understandable why we meet some resistance when trying to break bad habits or introduce new ones into our lives. We are somewhat anti-change by nature.
Would you like to be among the few who keep their resolutions and achieve your goals? Do you want to lose that weight and keep it off? Instead of thinking about making a big change to your life, try thinking of it as establishing a “better normal” for yourself. Keep in mind that the growing pains will be worth it. While you are adjusting, here are some tips to help you succeed with your resolutions. These work for any goals, by the way:
• Develop a support structure.
• Follow a regular practice.
• Be willing to negotiate your resistance to change.
One last thought on resolutions. A friend shared this insight with me last year, that we often overestimate what we can do in a single year but underestimate what we can do in a decade. Did you know that if you study a different book of the Bible each month, you will have studied every book of the Bible in less than six years? The apostle Paul tells us to redeem, or make the most of, the time (Ephesians 5:16). So what big thing will you try for God in the coming decade?
New Year’s traditions are almost as old as its celebration. Around the world, different countries ring in the new year with a wide variety of unusual practices. In Spain, for instance, revelers eat twelve grapes, one to signify success in each of the coming months. In Venezuela, they wear yellow underwear on New Year’s Day for good luck. Mexicans looking for romance in the coming year wear red underwear. If you grew up in the American South, as I did, you may have enjoyed a New Year’s Day meal of collard greens and black-eyed peas.
Apologia’s own Michelle Eichhorn shares her own family tradition from the Old World:
Our family celebrates New Year’s Day in the Greek style, with the cutting of the Vasilopeta bread, meticulously mixed, kneaded, and baked by my mother, who brought the recipe with her from the village of Crysafa in Greece. Baked into this sweet, cake-like bread is a coin wrapped in foil. The sign of the cross is made over the top of the bread, three times, to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then slices are marked across the entire length of the bread—one for Christ, one for the church, then one for every member of the family living in the house, plus a slice for the house. Each piece is then cut all the way through to locate the coin. The one who finds the coin in their slice is said to expect good luck in the coming year.
Traditions give a family and society its personality and uniqueness. Does your family have a special New Year’s tradition? Something you eat? Wear? Watch together on TV? Respond to this e-mail with a description of New Year’s Day at your home, and you will be entered to win a copy of Debra Bell’s Ultimate Homeschool Planner. Entries will be accepted until February 10, 2012, and we will announce the winner in next month’s e-newsletter.
From all of us at Apologia, may you enjoy a blessed year as you redeem the time the Lord has given you in 2012!
Kyle McManamy is the brand manager for Apologia Educational Ministries.