Still excited about 2024? Me, neither.
So I’m thinking we should change the date of the new year.
It’s not as ridiculous as it seems at first, so please hear me out.
But first, a recap of how 2024 seems like an extension of 2023, only worse, though to be fair I have to note that things have been heading downhill for a while now; the decline is simply picking up speed.
The new year was not even three hours old (in the U.S.) when word came of a devastating earthquake that hit western Japan. As a lifelong news guy, there was some satisfaction in staying up all night, searching for and posting the latest details. (That is how we newsfolk stay busy during terrible events without having to face the events themselves.) I said a couple hours after the quake that it looked as if the small city of Wajima had been hardest hit. Sadly, I was right. The conditions in that area continue to be miserable, and it is possible that the number of people who die from secondary effects — hypothermia, starvation — might exceed the more than 200 who died in the earthquake itself. Like us, the Japanese government tends to think that Japan is Tokyo, with the rest of the country there solely to support Tokyo. So provision for disaster other than in Tokyo is sparse. It is a crime.
One day later Tokyo got back into the headlines when a Japan Coast Guard airplane, ironically carrying relief supplies for earthquake victims, suffered a mishap when its pilot apparently failed to recognize the difference between the runway entry ramp and the runway itself and put his plane under the place Japan Air Lines Flight 516 was about to land. The airliner landed atop the Coast Guard plane. The JAL plane, an Airbus A-350, though afire managed to get stopped in time for all its passengers to escape. Though the video linked above was shown over and over, it seems that no one in newsrooms watched it, because for a time there was doubt as to what had happened. Another night of being up and gathering information. What had happened was obvious to anyone not in a newsroom.
Around the world we see that the earth is unstable. Though the volcanic eruption in Iceland had stopped before 2024 arrived, no one thinks it’s over. A couple of days ago there was a magnitude 6.5 earthquake near the Philipines. Quakes that we would normally think of as noticeable have been hitting western Japan daily.
In the U.S. Joe “Bugout” Biden finished his vacation, on an island few of us can afford to visit, miraculously without surrendering it to a terrorist organization, and came back in time not to notice — no one else did, either — that the secretary of defense seemed to have disappeared. Lloyd Austin, who resembles nothing so much as the kindly-if-inept next-door neighbor in any situation comedy of the last 40 years, was in the hospital, in intensive care. Apparently he hadn’t thought to tell anyone. (It would never happen with Biden himself; if they brought out a cardboard cutout of him people would notice instantly that it said nothing stupid and didn’t fall down.)
The media had gone crazy over the stunning revelations that would emerge with the release of papers connected with a lawsuit involving dead pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein. The papers got released and they were stunning-revelation-free. All they showed is that Epstein and his employees talked about famous people. It could have been a nail salon. This did not keep the media from acting as if the promised disclosures existed.
Point of personal privilege: it has been fairly awful around here, too. Before 2024 began I came down with something that resembles a slightly milder, longer-lasting version of COVID-19, and it continues. Most everyone I know is in a funk, as if we had just switched to standard time, and yesterday I received a message from a close friend, father of three, saying that he returned from his family’s Christmas vacation to discover he had been fired. I learned more details of the illness of my friend (such as friends are when you know them only on the internet) Nancy French, which are alarming. Her husband David wrote about it here. (You should read it. It will do you good.) Whether you agree with Nancy and David’s politics or not, you cannot deny that they are fine, caring, really good people. (All of the above deserve your prayers, if you pray, which you should.)
Yesterday I went to the store and discovered that the road was about to flood. On my return, it had flooded and I had to take the long way around to get home.
It is January 10, and this is some — by no means all; there’s lots of other news but none of it is good — of what has happened in the first third of the first month of 2024.
And it came in the cold, gray winter. I’m thinking we should change our years some other date, and not just because 2024 so far seems like 2023 in overtime.
Have you ever looked at our approach to time and learned what is naturally ordained and what is arbitrary? I have, a little, over the years. Our days are of necessity about 24 hours long, because that is the amount of time it takes the earth to revolve once. Our months, likewise, are established by nature, and the length of our years. There are minor variations and long-term trends (which, often for political reasons, we pretend are the work of man, even though they’re not). And there are things that are our exclusively our work. For instance, a new day begins at midnight only by convention. We could just as easily decide it begins at noon.
There are 24 hours in a day for a natural reason: the earth, being an orb, comprises 360 degrees. The sun moves 15 degrees across the sky in an hour. We could, I suppose, reduce our hours to 40 minutes, in which case the sun’s apparent movement would be a nice, round, 10 degrees during each of 36 hours. But the playing field itself isn’t established by us, and no matter how we divide it a day’s length established by other than us.
The first of the month is likewise arbitrary — the important thing is the number of days in the month, not when we begin counting them. (And our system of counting days is itself imperfect, which is why next month will have 29 days, not the usual 28.)
We don’t decide the length of the year, but we decide when to begin counting its days and months. After the French Revolution, for example, the total nutjobs who orchestrated that atrocity (from which France has yet to recover) thought the new year should begin September 22. In their inflated view of themselves, they decided that the date of their revolution was the beginning of the world, when it wasn’t even the beginning of France. (Many of them would end up beheading each other, which was arguably the removal of a useless appendage.) The French socialist philosopher Sylvain Maréchal decided that the new year should begin March 1; despite this, when he died in 1803 his head was still attached to his body.
Like so much in the slightly crazy tradition of the western world, our calendar got its start with the Romans, who decided arbitrarily that the new year would begin January 1. The Greeks probably would have done it better, but it’s not always wise to speculate on what might have been. And like much of what made the tradition of the western world begin to make sense, it was fixed by the Roman Catholic Church, back when it was not run by an Argentinian thug. Pope Gregory decreed the Gregorian calendar in October 1582. (He could have added a year zero, which would have eliminated countless arguments about when decades and centuries begin, but he wasn’t Greek.) Protestant countries didn’t go along — really, I sometimes wonder why they aren’t just called Contrarianist — which led to a mess later.
The Byzantine year began on September 1; the Russian year on March 1. Until the middle of the 18th century, the new year in England began on March 25, for some reason. (I don’t think they wrote a lot of checks in England at the time, so remembering what year it is wasn’t as important. But depending on what test you read, it can be hard to pin down the year King Charles I was executed.)
The date of the English new year became January 1 in 1752, the year they would later adopt the Gregorian calendar.
I mentioned that it all caused a mess. When the Brits adopted the Gregorian calendar, to reconcile it with the old calendar 11 days were deleted for one year. Therefore, some dates around and preceding 1751 are given in “O.S.,” or Old Style, or “N.S.,” New Style, depending on whether they were adjusted for the new calendar. While George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, O.S., we celebrate his birthday on February 22, N.S. (Abraham Lincoln was born on February 11, 1809, threescore and eighteen years — minus 11 days — later.)
So it is not exactly as if January 1 is the immutable start of the new year. We all celebrate our own new years, on our birthdays and the birthdays of those we care about. Companies have their own founding dates, Governments and companies establish their own fiscal years that can begin any old time.
We needn’t begin the year in the cold and dark of winter.
We try to enter each new year with renewed hope, with the belief that the coming year will be better than the one that just passed. That is hard to do when it is cold and miserable and even harder when the world is coming apart, figuratively and literally, around us. We should change the date we begin the year to a time of growth and beauty, when the hopes we foster are more obviously supported.
I propose that henceforth we begin each year on April 1.
“But wait,” you might say. “That’s April Fools’ Day.”
I wish it were otherwise, but I see no contradiction.