The “Merry Christmas” phase is over and the “And a Happy New Year” bit is almost upon us. We are in that peculiar liminal space now, the one where people fortunate enough to not have to go in to work lose the ability to remember the day or date; and people who do have to go back in to work get stuck in a largely incomprehensible stop-start period of working days, which gather in unpredictable clumps, punctuated by bank holidays and weekends that somehow always turn up when you least expect them.
It only comes to an end when the forced and just-too-soon-after-Christmas bonhomie that is New Year’s Eve arrives, traditionally signalled by mediocre pubs suddenly having both an entrance charge and a murderous looking bouncer. This brings with it the problem of English people being near-universally unable to cope with a pub that doesn’t forcibly send them home before public transport stops for the night, but is itself probably preferable to the alternative of the New Year’s Eve House Party. A monster of Lovecraftian proportions, but with more existential dread.
If you can struggle through all this, that which awaits in January is enough to make you wish you hadn’t. In January, even most people who usually have a disposable income, don’t have a disposable income. All of the plants are dead. No one goes out in the evenings, despite there being nothing new on telly. Half the people you know decide not to drink alcohol, as if refusing a half of bitter before Sunday lunch for three weekends in a row will make up for consuming a bottle of wine with dinner 300 plus days a year, and going solo on a bottle of port and a platter of cheese over Christmas.
Those Sundays evaporate like breath on a mirror, so brief are the hours of daylight: just getting up slightly later than normal, having a shower and doing the ironing take you through to twilight. This is an insult to add to the injury that is not seeing your own home in daylight at least five days of the week, and all commuting being conducted in a perpetual night.
Yes, the nights are technically drawing out again, but by the end of January we’re only going to be where we were at the beginning of December in terms of minutes of daylight. It was insufferable then, and this time there isn’t even Christmas to look forward to. (I remember distinctly that, when I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, I wasn’t quite as perturbed by the idea of Narnia being trapped in a time where it is “Always winter but never Christmas” as CS Lewis clearly expected me to be. When you’re seven and in the Midlands, “Always winter but never Christmas” is just a description of January.)
Even the unseasonably warm weather we’re experiencing, and will likely continue to experience early in 2016, isn’t any consolation, as it provokes endless worry about the extent to which the planet is now damaged beyond repair and we’re all going to die soon in a n environmental catastrophe of our own making. A thought that is made less cheery by being had in the dark, even though it’s only 20 past four.
Against this backdrop we’ll witness the umpteenth reiteration of clichés about broken resolutions and sacrificed gym memberships, and approximately 44,000 dreadful articles about the myth of “Blue Monday” and, worse, the social media response to all of the above.
Why do New Year’s resolutions fail? Because, in Northern Europe, January isn’t a beginning or a rebirth. It’s the (joint) darkest period of the winter, and every detail of it almost seems designed to crush any attempt to start anew, an environment that absolutely dooms them to fail. Who can cut down on eating when there are so many leftovers that will spoil? Who can go for a run before work in a country where it doesn’t get light until 40 minutes after you need to be at your desk? Who feels like a new challenge when you’ve spent a week with a hangover?
There’s a reason for this, and a solution too; and as is usual in situations like this, they are intimately connected.
That 11 days were removed from the UK calendar in 1752, when the country abandoned the Julian Calendar for the Gregorian one thus coming into sync with a dating system used across most of Europe since 1582, is a famous pub quiz fact. What goes less often remarked upon is that at the same time, the shift in calendars moved the official (legal) New Year to 1 January. Before then, from 1155 at the latest to 1752, New Year’s Day in England wasn’t the 1 January; it was the Feast of the Annunciation, which falls on the 25 March.
Anyone who has done any UK history beyond GCSE level crashes into this fact sooner or later, as they grapple with facsimile documents that are marked in the Old Style, and someone has to explain to them them that, no, Mary, Queen of Scots didn’t write that letter the month after she had her head cut off, she had in mind a different March 1587 from the one you do.
My proposal is simple: let’s move New Year’s Day back to where it used to be, give or take, to the 1 April and make our resolutions as the days lengthen and the earth wakes up.
You might be thinking that would be confusing, after all so many international institutions use the Gregorian calender. But there’s nothing to stop us using both two calenders simultaneously for different purposes. China and India clearly manage without their peoples getting collectively confused over birthdays and given that they’re two of the world’s most populous nations, that’s rather a lot of birthdays.
Roman based calendars – and the Gregorian is so Roman it was designed by a Pope – take the year as beginning when the consuls of the Roman Republic historically took office. Which is in January. Which is fine in Rome. January is very pleasant in Rome, I’m sure. A New Year’s resolution to eat more fresh fruit probably seems quite plausible in Rome. Here in the Atlantic Islands however, it’s a bit of a non-starter, for all the reasons above.
Calenders are seasonal, and like time zones, they should suit where they are used. The Bengali calender has six seasons, because that’s what the weather is like where it was invented. (Mentioning this to people who assume that four seasons is some kind of universal constant can be very rewarding. Try it.)
We already know, anyway, that people can cope with the New Year starting at two different times of year in the UK as anyone who has sat through a discussion in which someone says “Ah, the financial year” and nods sagely will know. So, in a sense, moving New Year to April would actually simplify matters. Certainly for those not on PAYE.
(You have probably realised that the dates of the older system match those of the financial year almost exactly. 6 April is Lady Day plus the 11 days removed during the changeover of calendars. The Treasury has simply never adjusted to N/S dating. It was, after all, only changed in 1752. You can’t expect HMRC to do anything that quickly.)
As the UK finally moves towards being a multicultural country (after decades of being simply a multiethnic one) people are increasingly used to the idea of friends and relatives celebrating different new years without it upsetting anyone. (Or at least anyone worth worrying about.) At best it can be an excuse for a nice party at a time when they’re in short supply. Rather than a dreary one shoved cheek to jowl against the biggest party of the year. No one seems unduly disturbed by knowing people who live in different time zones, after all.
So, come on, let’s move New Year’s back to where it was 400 years ago. Then we all really can make a fresh start.