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Let’s Re-think New Year


   Now that Christmas and New Year’s Eve/Day are safely behind us and life is beginning to return to normal, it’s time to think about which of those two holidays needs to be moved.  I vote for New Year.  


It’s always puzzled me why we should cram two of our major raucously celebratory holidays so close together, particularly since both of them unlike, say, July 4th, are on arbitrarily-chosen days.  Their proximity during the darkest days of what used to be winter not only leads to Zombie week, the week between the holidays when you pretend to be alive at work, it also wastes a major celebration when you have barely recovered from the previous one.  If we spread them out a bit, there would be one fewer large gaps between our raucously celebratory holidays.


No one knows on what day or month or, for that matter, year, Jesus was born.  We celebrate Christmas on December 25th because the Roman Emperor Constantine decided nearly 1700 years ago that a time near the winter solstice, when the days are just beginning to lengthen once again, was appropriate.  Besides, he thought he might also be able to co-opt for Christianity a couple of pre-existing Roman feast days honoring other gods which were celebrated around that date.  


Fair enough.  Given a 1700 year old tradition, regardless of how arbitrary, I’m inclined to leave Christmas alone.  


The New Year is another matter.  


The day we celebrate the beginning of a new year depends on the calendar we use.  Calendars of various types have been around for thousands of years – ever since people first noticed that the place on the horizon where the sun rose and set changed each day in a regular and repeatable fashion.  From the darkest day of winter (in the northern hemisphere), the location of sunrise and sunset gradually moves north and from the longest day of summer it gradually moves south.  

Where the sun rises and sets and the direction it is moving are pretty good predictors of the weather.  So keeping track of these things could be a useful guide as to when to plant, and when to harvest, your crops.  It could also help you place past events in time and plan for the future.

     How to further divide a “year” – the time between successive longest or shortest days – has always been a problem though.  One logical way to divide it was to use the regular and repeatable phases of the moon.  But that interval – 29½  days – did not divide evenly into 365¼ days of the solar year, so lunar calendars and solar calendars could never be easily reconciled.  That has been giving us headaches ever since.


Our current calendar with its mishmash of 30, 31, and 28 or 29 day months – approximations of lunar cycles -- is based on the ancient Roman calendar.  An early version of that calendar divided the year into ten months, each either 30 or 31 days long, beginning with March 1st and running through December.  Remnants of that calendar are still with us in the names of September, October, November, and December, in which you can recognize the Latin words for seven (septem), eight (octo), nine (novem), and ten (decem).  

Those Roman calendar months only added up to 304 days though.  There was an unnamed interval of about 61 days in mid- to late winter, so later Romans added two months – January and February to fill this gap.  January was named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of gates, doorways, and transitions, which goes to show that Romans had a god for pretty much everything.  Julius Caesar, among his other exploits, fixed the lengths of months to add up to 365 days with a “leap year” every four years. He also fixed the day on which January 1st should occur, timing it to coincide with the annual inauguration of Rome’s highest elected officials.   See what I mean?  Arbitrary.

Like many things the ancient Romans did, that date for the New Year was undone during the European Middle Ages which typically observed the beginning of the year in March, either at the spring equinox (when the day and night are of equal length) or a few days after on the western Christian Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th.  American colonists, in fact, observed New Year’s Day on March 25 for more than a century after they arrived in the New World before switching to January 1st when our current calendar was re-jiggered one last time in 1752.  So compared to Christmas, the date of the New Year is a whippersnapper. 

Meaning that there is no compelling reason to celebrate it when we do.   According our calendar, Ethiopians celebrate the New Year in September, Thais and Cambodians in April.  Calendars based on phases of the moon will shift the day around from year to year by our standards.  So Chinese New Year can happen anytime between January 20thand February 20th and the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) comes along as early as September 5th and as late as October 5th.  


Given these possibilities, my vote for a new and improved New Year’s Day is a return to tradition – ancient Roman tradition.  Let’s re-make New Year’s Day on March 1st, which in case you forgot is also National Pig Day.  This would significantly shrink the current extra-long gap in raucously celebratory holidays between Christmas and July 4th.  


On March 1st, the weather is also likely to be better here in Alabama, so outdoor events will be more pleasant.  Also, I personally would prefer to break my New Year’s resolutions when the days were longer and warmer.  

Better yet, let’s make New Years’ Day the first Friday after March 1st.  This year convinced me that a couple of extra days to recover after the New Year is a fine idea.  There might be a problem with extending the college football bowl season by another couple of months, but the NCAA can figure that out.  I can’t solve all the holiday problems by myself. 

To Err is Human, to Admit it is Not

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About Me
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I am a scientist and writer. My early research was field-based. I have done field research in several parts of the United States, Venezuela, East Africa, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea. Once I became interested in the biology of aging, my research became more laboratory oriented. Perhaps because of my background in English, I have always been eager to communicate the excitement of science to the public at large. In that capacity I have written popular books, planned museum exhibits, and produced a regular newspaper column on science.

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Methuselah’s Zoo:
What Nature Can
Teach Us about Living
Healthier Lives

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1. Living is inherently destructive.

Biologist Max Kleiber called it The Fire of Life—which is more than a metaphor. Our bodies consist of forty trillion cells, each of which is an energy factory. That energy is provided by chemical reactions identical to those of a highly regulated fire. The chemical bonds in food are torn apart with the help of oxygen to release the energy needed to perform all cellular functions. This is precisely the same chemistry that causes the chemical bonds in wood, paper, or gasoline to be torn apart with the help of oxygen to release energy in the form of fire.

Just as fire produces side effects—sparks, soot, smoke—our cellular energy factories also do, by way of chemical by-products. Some of these by-products are oxygen radicals, which are destructive to the cellular energy factories themselves. To give an idea of the scale of damage, the DNA in each of our cells is estimated to be damaged by internal fire at least ten thousand times per day. Ten thousand bits of DNA damage per day times forty trillion cells and we are talking about numbers more familiar to astronomers than biologists. How do we survive for months, much less decades, in the face of such destruction?

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