Our planet orbits the sun every 365 days, 6 hours, 8 minutes, 38 seconds and a tiny little bit besides.
Round and round it goes in a beautiful elliptical loop, one of the many wonderful conic sections for which we must give thanks to the spirits of Menaechmus, Euclid, Archimedes, Appolonius of Perga and Pappus of Alexandria. Geniuses that they were, they spotted something that would not be immediately obvious to those of us with an inferior eye.
And I suppose we must also be grateful to chance that our orbit isn’t one of the conic sections that would have consigned us to the void, namely the parabola or the hyperbola, though we are of course still given to hyperbole and our trajectory through the earthly void is still parabolic in nature, as any circus performer shot from a cannon will tell you, provided he survives in his stripy swimsuit and with his waxed moustache intact.
It was the calendar promulgated by Julius Caesar in 45 BC that defined the days, based on the old Roman calendar. Caesar recognised that we didn’t orbit the sun in a neat 364 days, giving a clean 52 weeks. He understood, or to be more precise, his scientists understood that it was a bit untidy, estimating the orbit time at 365.25 days which was very accurate, given the observational techniques available at the time. Caesar ordained a leap day every four years to take account of the extra quarter day in the orbit, but of course he didn’t know about the slight error, with the result that his calendar slowly drifted out of kilter. The Greeks knew about this problem, but the Romans didn’t care, and so the calendar slid about three days every four centuries, measured against the equinox, until at last, in 1582, Pope Gregory announced a new calendar to account for the discrepancy, and that’s the calendar everyone uses today.
People weren’t happy. They protested about the theft — as they saw it — of nearly a fortnight from their lives but in those days nobody cared what the lower orders thought. Much as it is today, in other words.
The Chinese, the Muslims and the Jews still aren’t too happy about it but in a globalised, Microsofted world the Gregorian calendar seems here to stay, for now at least.
But as I said, we fly around our local star in 365 days, 6 hours, 8 minutes, 38 seconds and a tiny little bit besides. And of course we can choose when to mark the beginning of that cycle or its end, depending on your point of view, but it has always seemed reasonable to select the period around the winter solstice, when the days in the northern hemisphere start to wax again after the long waning of Winter, though Antipodeans might well disagree.
Who decided that this day should be the start of the new year?
Nobody seems to know. There isn’t a good reason why this day or any other day should be selected. The Ethiopians use the 11th of September. The Cambodians have the 13th April. The Chinese use the lunar calendar, just as the Vatican does when defining Easter.
For all the difference it makes, we could just as easily choose the feast of Maewyn Succat, and this is why I choose not to wish you a happy new year tonight.
I have chosen, arbitrarily, to select the 11th February as New Year’s Day, and when that time comes I will offer you season’s greetings, but that isn’t to say that I refuse to wish you well tonight.
Far from it.
Tonight, let me wish you peace and happiness for the future, just as I would offer you on any other day.