One day I found myself wondering why we celebrate New Year's Day on January 1st. After all, what's the point? Nothing special is happening in Nature on that day. The winter solstice happens more than a week before. Christmas, of course, is exactly one week before, and December 25th was celebrated as the beginning of the end of winter in many ancient cultures in the Northern Hemisphere, but so what? What does that have to do with January 1st? My curiosity led me into doing a little research.
First I checked out the whole idea of a New Year celebration. I found out that the oldest one recorded took place around 2000 B.C. in Babylon, which was in what we now know as Iraq. However, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year in late March because that was the beginning of their new cycle of Spring planting. Before the planting, though, they spent eleven days in celebrations of thanksgiving for all the good that the gods had provided the previous year. In a very similar way the ancient Hawaiians celebrated the New Year in November, with four whole months of thanksgiving feasting and gaming and getting ready for the next season.
Some kind of New Year celebration has been part of virtually every culture on earth as a means of giving thanks for past things of value, and making preparations for another year of more things of value (hopefully).
Still, why January 1st? It isn't a harvest time or a seeding time in either hemisphere. As a point in the orbit of the Earth around the Sun it doesn't have any particular significance.
As it turns out, my research revealed that natural events are not the only things that humans consider significant.
During the early Roman Empire the first day of the New Year was January 1st. Weirdly enough, their January 1st fell on what we now know as March 25, at the beginning of Spring. Because various emperors and high-ranking officials placed great value on extending their terms of office, they fiddled with the lengths of months and years until the calendar got so out of whack that Julius Caesar had to put January 1st on its proper date again (March 25) in 46 B.C.
Enter the Catholic Church. As the leaders of that body became more politically powerful they decided to establish their own January 1st, in opposition to what they considered a pagan fertility festival. So they created a brand new calendar and made the New Year begin on the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, exactly one week after the birth of Christ by their reckoning.
The transition to this new New Year wasn't immediate. From the 11th to the 13th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese celebrated the New Year on the Catholic January 1st, the British celebrated it on March 25th, the Italians on December 15 (which was Christmas day at that time) and the French on Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, and still today, the Chinese, Jews, and traditional Hawaiians celebrate New Year in their own timing. Because the Gregorian calendar is so widely accepted today, the latter get to celebrate the New Year twice if they want to.
It's time for a valid question to arise. What is the point of this article?
The point is that people everywhere have always acknowledged in some way the ending of an old cycle and the beginning of a new one. The exact timing of the cycle depends on the value--the importance--that people give to the cycle. As described above, some people may think natural cycles are more important and others may think religious or political cycles to be so. In addition, people everywhere have decided that the beginning/ending of the cycle is a good time to reflect on what they consider important in their lives, and to confirm these values or change them.
It doesn't matter whether your favorite cycle begins on January 1st, your birthday, the spring equinox, the winter solstice or Boxing Day. There is something inherently, humanly powerful about declaring that one cycle has ended and a new one has begun, and then using that transition time to give thanks for value received and make plans for value to come.
Your values consist of whatever you believe is most important in your life. Your values themselves have value because they govern every aspect of your personal behavior, and they influence the behavior of the world around you. In any situation in life you will always act according to what is most important to you at the time, no matter what the circumstance or what anyone around you says or does. If you are ever surprised by your own behavior, it's because you are not aware of your own values.
As an example, I was discussing values with my adorable wife and we each discovered something we didn't expect. We value our relationship highly, but during our discussion it came out very clearly that we value personal freedom even more. Our relationship has such a high value that we constantly accede to each other's wishes even when that means doing something we don't want to do, or not doing something we want to do. Since there is so much give and take on both sides, and so much joy in other aspects of the relationship, we consider these restrictions on personal freedom as easily tolerable (although I grumble sometimes just for the heck of it). In other words, the relationship has a higher value than these minor restrictions on our freedom. However, in playing the game of "What if...?" it came out that if these restrictions became "excessive" (by subjective evaluation) then the value of the relationship would diminish accordingly.
The discussion got even more interesting when we discovered that "relationship" and "personal freedom" are very abstract concepts. Behind those abstracts were the things we really valued most: the pleasure of our mutual admiration and respect; and the emotional satisfaction of making our own choices.
Behind all abstract values--love, power, health, freedom, etc.--are the very specific values, i.e., the really important things, that move us emotionally and motivate us behaviorally. At any given moment you will always move toward whatever holds the potential, in your estimation, for the greatest pleasure or the least pain.
In both California and Hawaii you can almost always tell who the carpenters are: they are the ones with surfboards in their pick-up trucks. They bring their boards to work, and when the surf is high enough the worksite is abandoned. The abstract view is that they value surfing more than working. The specific view is that they think the thrill of riding a big wave is more important than sawing wood for someone else (unless they are in dire need of money to pay the rent). They will usually stay on the job when the surf is mediocre, but when the waves reach a certain height...
Another example is the person who works so hard "for the family" that he or she ignores the family to the point where the person ends up alone and confused. Here the abstract value of "family security" is probably based on a very intense personal fear of being criticized for failing to support them. In the pursuit of avoiding criticism the actual family is lost from view.
The value of the discussion between my wife and myself was that we became more consciously aware of what we value. At the same time, because of our Huna background, we realized that it was all arbitrary. With the flick of a thought we can change any of our values that we choose to change. We can make important things unimportant and unimportant things important by our will alone. And the value of that is that we are more consciously aware of, and careful of, those values we choose to live by.
Changing what you value most in life is an act that has profound consequences for you and those around you, because the values you have now also have such consequences. If your life doesn't seem to be working out for you, there might be a problem with your values. If life is working out for you, then values are also involved and it might be a good idea to know what they are.
Any time is a good time to examine what is most important to you, in order to confirm it or make some alterations. Therefore, now is a good time, too.