I have often wondered why people seem to get so excited about the new year. What are all those people standing in the freezing cold in Times Square really celebrating? Is it merely an excuse to party and drink too much? Or are they sincerely happy that a new year is dawning? And if so... why, exactly? Do they think that the new year will be better than the last one? Don't they remember that they thought the same thing a year ago? Don't they know that a year from now, they'll be celebrating the passing of this year and the start of the next? And so on and so on, ad infinitum? Are we really so glad to keep moving forward in time, even though each new year brings us inevitably one year closer to our demise? What is this celebrating all about, anyway?
I can't answer for other people, but even as I ask such questions I admit that I myself have always had a certain fascination with the arrival of a new year. However, I feel that my appreciation of this calendrical change is in some way different from that of most other people, so I still wonder what it is exactly that they are so excited about. For me, it is related to a somewhat nerdish interest I have always had in time and history. Before I explain that, let me preface it by saying that I don't see the new year, or a new decade, or even a new century or millenium, as bringing with it a magical change, for better or for worse. As U2 once put it, "Nothing changes on New Year's Day." History is a continuum, more often than not marked by evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes. Even when revolutionary change does occur, it doesn't happen on our schedule, but at odd times on the calendar. For example, it has been said that the 19th century actually ended in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, and that the 21st century really began in 1989, the year that the Berlin Wall fell and the World Wide Web was invented. These ideas, too, are just ideas, no more or less real than the 20th century that began on January 1, 1900 and ended on December 31, 1999 (the dates according to popular custom, not mathematics, which no one really cares about anyway). Each of these conceptions of when a certain time period began or ended is of course just something that we impose on time, a way of drawing up boundaries and setting down mile markers. Our timekeeping is a way of naming certain periods of time, whether they be years, months, weeks, days (each linked in some way with astronomical cycles), or more artificial constructions like hours, minutes, and seconds. There is a comfort, and a great practical benefit, to having regular divisions to our experience. But underneath it all, time flows in one long continuous river.
That said, I still always find myself fascinated by the arrival of a new year. Sure, I know it's just a number, the inevitable moving from one labeled division of time to the next, but to me that change in labeling is somehow exciting. We have always been moving forward in time at the same rate, but when we reach that mile marker, that state line, when we reach a territory that requires a new name, we feel a more tangible sense of change and progress through time. For me, this is linked with a lifelong fascination with the future, which in my adult life I have realized is related to a larger fascination with time as a whole, with the way in which past, present, and future are all part of the same continuum, and the way in which history is a long, unpredictable, and always interesting journey from the beginning of the world to the end. Perhaps, ultimately, what intrigues me is the sense that I am a character finding myself in the midst of a vast story, so big that I can't see its boundaries, the beginning and the ending completely out of sight. The new year is like the turning of the page. We may be in mid-sentence, but there is a tangible sense of progress in reaching the end of the page and flipping over to the next one. I am always interested in seeing what happens next, and in seeing where this is all going. The fact that we have just moved on to page 2010 of the Christian Era part of the book is exciting. We are moving further along, always meeting up with new things, seeing the strange and impossible future become reality before our eyes. In previous chapters of the book, we often wondered what these future pages would bring, but were unable to leap ahead to find out. We often imagined things about them, hopeful or fearful. Now we get to see at last what they're really like. Often this may be disappointing, or it may be reassuring. It is never uninteresting.
As a child in the 1970s and early 1980s, I grew up anticipating the wondrous future that lay ahead in the year 2000. During my young adult life in the 1990s, I didn't give much thought to it, but as the actual year 2000 drew near, and after it arrived, I became interested in looking around at the world and seeing how closely it resembled all the ideas that people had imagined about it. Inevitably, there was disappointment. The world looked pretty much the same on January 1, 2000 as it had on December 31, 1999. For that matter, it was not all that radically different in appearance from how it had looked in the 1970s. But as the first decade of the new century wore on, I began to realize just how much had changed. No, we did not have giant wheel-shaped space stations, moon bases, jetpacks, or cities that looked like Tomorrowland. Nor was everyone wearing form-fitting, shiny bodysuits (considering the obesity epidemic, this is undoubtedly a blessing). But I came to realize that many changes, both technological and cultural, had occurred while I wasn't looking. In fact, when I began to think about all the changes that had occurred--remote control TVs, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, personal computers, the Internet, microwave ovens, cell phones, etc. etc.--the 1970s of my childhood started to seem downright quaint. This was an unusual sensation for me, for in my thirties I began to feel tangibly the movement of history in my own life. For the first time, I saw the era of my childhood as being a distinctly different historical period than the one in which I currently lived. I had grown up thinking of the '50s and '60s as far distant eras; how strange it was to realize that my own childhood was much closer to those times, not only chronologically but in many ways culturally and technologically, than it was to the present. And, once I saw them in that light, the early years of my life suddenly became fascinating in a way that they never really had been before.
Even so, it was still comforting to see that many things remained the same. For example, nature was still around (neither done in by gray, smothering pollution nor made obsolete by gleaming futuristic cities). Buildings, cars, and clothing still looked basically the same... perhaps initially a disappointment, but in the end, perhaps more reassuring than anything else. Because sometimes historical change, when you stop and take a look at it (or even when you don't stop to take a look at it because you don't have time to keep up with it), can be disorienting and disturbing. The past will always feel like home because it is literally where (or rather, when) we are from. It will always feel comforting, even the parts that once troubled us, because it is now safely behind us and is something we know. The future will always feel like a strange land, unknown, frightening, and uncertain. But ultimately, it will be our home just as much as the past was. It is all part of the same reality, the same unfolding story.
So, when the new year arrives, with a strange new name, it is a wondrous thing to behold and to find oneself in a new and unknown place, full of possibility. So yes, let us celebrate that arrival.
But let us also take comfort in the equally true fact that it is just another year.