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Kevin McEvoy What do New Year’s celebrations actually celebrate?

January 1, 2019

All the presents have been opened. All the eggnog drank.

Batteries have been installed in all the new devices, and gift books are being read. Thoughts of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza are slowly fading away and soon the holiday bills will arrive.

New Year’s is almost here. Celebrations everywhere! Champaign! Fireworks around the world. Parades. Concerts. Celebrities. All shown on global television. Everyone will soon be singing “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a global party! But what are we really celebrating? What’s the party all about?

A change of calendar dates alone doesn’t seem important enough for such fanfare. Calendar dates do change-but so what? It happens every month. What makes the New Year’s calendar change so special?

Dates are a way of tracking chronological changes, a way of keeping score. What was accomplished during this period of time? How does it compare with the last period of the same length? Are we getting ahead, keeping even, or falling behind? One thing this tracking does tell us, like it or not, is how old we are becoming. Like birthdays for many, this news does not seem a particularly happy occasion to remember, or celebrate. We try to blunt the effect of time passing, or aging, by throwing birthday parties, often attempts to make us feel better about accepting the inevitable. Adults party, but internally avoid recognizing what the occasion really means. It seems only children can honestly enjoy birthday parties.

Financial institutions also track time, using it as a score-keeping device. Depending on a company’s fiscal year, New Year’s marks a one quarter’s end, and may also mark the end of a fiscal year. Either way, financial reports are released. Financial analysts become quite busy. And then at the end of the calendar year comes the biggest tracking event of all, the largest financial impact of the year, the end of the federal and states’ tax year. Preparations begin as every taxpayer begins to look forward to reporting income and paying their taxes. Again, not usually something to celebrate.

Retailers use sales leading up to New Years as a way to sell off unsold merchandise after the Christmas sales rush. Starting with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas sales rush officially begins, retailers experience the biggest business explosion of the year. Black Friday is so named since many retailers’ finances go from being in the “red” (recording losses) to “black,” (recording profits). The colors represent how accountants traditionally posted results, red ink for losses, black ink for profits. New Year’s becomes the “last chance” for retailers to unload product and go “into the black” before the tax year changes. This can create more stress than celebration.

There is a scientific approach to New Year’s. One year is the length of time it takes the Earth to complete one orbit around the sun. This is astronomically recognized to be about 365.25 days long. Since the Gregorian calendar was launched in 1582, that extra quarter day part has been accounted for by adding an extra whole day to the calendar every four years, as Feb. 29, a procedure known as intercalation. This “extra day” creates a “Leap Year.” The next Leap Year will be in 2020. An extra day every four years? Nice if someone needs an extra day to accomplish something, but worth globally celebrating?

Some will look at New Year’s as an end of something personal. Another year completed, which may mean another year “survived.” Another year “above ground.” Yet the name of the holiday is “New” Year’s, not “Another Year Lived.”

So what then is the global celebration all about? Perhaps New Year’s is actually something more subtle, yet profound. It’s a new beginning. A new chance. A new opportunity for each of us and all of us to do better for ourselves and for each other. And doing better means being better, not just getting better. It also means giving more. Using the lessons we have learned from the past year to make a better tomorrow by fixing the problems of the past year. It means arriving at next year’s New Year’s world better than we found it this year’s New Year’s world. Now that is something worth celebrating.

Kevin McEvoy, PhD, is an Assistant Professor Residence at the University of Connecticut in Stamford. He has won many teaching awards and was named a Teaching Scholar by UConn’s Institute of Teaching and Learning in 2010.

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