When I was a kid, I did not think much of New Years Day as a holiday. Following so closely on Christmas, New Years was rather pale. Christmas had trees, decorations, presents, family gatherings, special foods and treats, even the mystery that religious events have for small children.
New Years Eve was weird in that something was supposed to happen, but it happened in a way that was not apparent to a child. The big event was midnight when my father would step out onto the front step and fire a .22 rifle into the cold winter air. One New Years Eve, he put a hole in the eve trough over the front door.
Like Christmas Day, on New Years Day, the family went to Mass and then gathered for a large meal. I grew up before TV was common and there was no football ritual. After the meal, the men and older boys would play cards.
The only advantage for having New Years I could see was its proximity to Christmas. This forced schools to close for a week or more of “Christmas Vacation”.
As I grew older, I learned why Christmas and New Years were so close together. The time of celebration for both is because of the winter solstice, the day of the year that has the shortest period of time between sunrise and sunset.
As ancient peoples observed the progression of the seasons, they noticed that plants died or became dormant in fall and early winter as the amount of daylight decreased. The amount of daylight was least on the solstice and then began increasing until there was enough sunlight and warmth to bring plants back to life. It is logical to think of the solstice as the ‘birthday’ of the New Year.
Calendars that became fixed thousands of years ago have had the date of the “birthday” drift from the actual solstice. When the early Christian church competed with paganism for members, it was easier for the early church to select a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus that interfered with the pagan celebration of the solstice. The conflict forced the believers to choose one or the other instead of celebrating both.
So Christmas and New Years are close together because they are both based on the solstice, an easily observable point in time.
It is interesting that we could use a different astronomical event for determining the beginning of the New Year. There are two points in the Earth’s orbit that are unique, aphelion, when the Earth is farthest from the sun and perihelion, when the Earth is closest. In 2013, perihelion occurred at 6:59 PM GMT or 1:59 PM EST. We could define the beginning of the New Year based on the perihelion of the Earth.
There are two problems with this notion. The first is that perihelion, like the New Years Eve midnight of my youth, is not easily observed; it requires quite a bit of astronomical equipment. The second is that perihelion shifts over time. It gets 20 to 24 minutes earlier each year; in about 45 years it will have shifted to before midnight (GMT) of December 31.
Regardless of how you defined the beginning of 2013, I hope it is a good year for you and your family.