Thursday, January 2, 2014

In with the new


As many historians would agree, the celebration of the new year today is due to an arbitrary imposition in the past. The date is determined by a particular calendar, the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. The calendar designated January 1 as the first day of the year. In other calendars, however, like the Ifugao calendar, Chinese calendar, Hindu calendar, or Japanese calendar, today is but a regular day. And so it goes for cultures, and other species, for that matter, whose lives do not depend on the Gregorian calendar.
Still, centuries of following the Gregorian calendar have taught us to make a big deal out of the date and turn it into a pompous occasion. We have dreamed up countless traditions whose roots mainly lie in superstition. In the Philippines, we wear polka dots and eat round fruits; in Spain, they eat twelve grapes at midnight; in Germany, they drop molten metal in cold water; in the Netherlands, they burn bonfires of Christmas trees; and in Greece, they eat cakes with gold coins inside. Across the globe, we try to outdo each other’s fireworks displays, a vestige of a more mythical past when we believed that the revelry could scare off evil spirits and bad luck.
All these acts we perform despite the fact that there is no scientific basis for wearing polka dots and financial security, or eating twelve grapes and being lucky all year. Our reason, after all, is not scientific, but cultural. On this day, perhaps more than others, culture asserts its rightful and irreplaceable position in society, trumping what advancement we have made over ideas such as luck. Culture, however, does not pose to be a source of any added knowledge that can improve our space missions or search for the cure for cancer; it insists on itself as a reassurance of permanence. That is, as we have been doing these traditions for a long time, they have become a shared experience with our forebears, the traditions outliving our ancestors and keeping their vitality all the way to these contemporary times. Although we know that such permanence is but an illusion, the rituals are comforting, a guarantee that things remain the same even as we flip the calendar to a new year.
Perhaps this is truly what makes this day so special. New Year’s Day is the past meeting the present, tradition greeting change, the old confronting the new, polar opposites collapsing into one grand occasion for which we bring out the fireworks.
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