In praise of a new New Year

Every year, people make a point of watching the sun rise on New Year’s Day, and solemnly resolve to live better, greener, more smoke-free lives.

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Many are content merely to party through the night and then to climb their local hill in recognition of a half-remembered, older dispensa­tion. A few, driven by competitive ambition or the desire for some sort of personal epiphany, strive to be the first to greet the rising sun, and so journey either to Mt Hikurangi on the East Coast, or, to be one jump ahead of the Mainlanders, to that uttermost end of the earth, the Chatham Islands. For the Chathams—in spite of the deplorable meteoro­logical statistics for those lonely islands—are indeed the first specks of New Zealand to see the new day.

But what, really, is all this new year fuss about? Have the maudlin bawlings of Auld Lang Syne, the glass-littered beaches, the displays of projectile vomiting, the splitting headaches and unexpected pregnancies any raison d’être other than the ghosts of saturnalia past?

The answer is “None,” for the first day of January has no astronomical significance, and is actually a Johnny­come-lately as the starting line of the year.

Astronomy furnishes two obvious days which may be used to mark the beginning of the year. The first and most easily determined by direct observation is the spring equinox, which is when the Sun rises due east and sets due west. On this day (and its autumn counter­part) the daily differences of the Sun’s position on the horizon at rising and setting are at a maximum. Daily naked eye observations are quite adequate for determin­ing that day, for then the markers for the rise and set directions lie in a straight line with a central sighting mark.

The second significant day is that of the winter solstice, which is when the Sun at noon is at its lowest during the year, so marking the end of its decline and the beginning of its recovelY to the high noons. Although thesolstice is much more difficult than the equinox to determine, as the daily changes in both noon altitude and rise/set positions are very small, its obvious symbolic signficance led many cultures to adopt it as marking the rebirth of the year.

January 1 came into the picture almost by accident, in 153 B.C., when it marked the date at which consuls and magistrates assumed office in response to an emergency created by a revolt in Spain. Prior to 153, the Roman year had begun in March at the vernal equinox.

At that time, Rome used a 12-month, 355-day calendar based on the lunar month, the interval between two full moons. To correct the discrepancies which arose from having a year that was nine days short of the solar year, a “floating” month called Mercedinus was added periodically.

As early as the fifth century B.C. the Greek astronomer Meton had developed rules for calculat­ing the length of the extra month required to keep the two types of year, lunar and solar, in reasonable agree­ment. However, the Roman calendar was controlled by the civil and religious authorities rather than by astronomers, and intercala­tion of the extra month became arbitrary and was frequently overlooked altogether.

This hit-and-miss system was replaced by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. by a calendar based on solar positions, on the advice of the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes. Because the Roman calendar had got about three months ahead of the seasons, Julius stipulated that the year we know as 46 B.C. should have 445 days. (The Romans called it—not surprisingly—”the year of confusion.”) In addition, the months January and February were placed at the beginning of the year, which is why the old number names, September to Decem­ber, do not correspond with the Latin number of the month. This anomaly is curious in view of Roman love of order and the readi­ness with which both Julius and Augustus Caesar memorialised themselves with month names.

The Julian calendar, with its mean year length of 365.25 days, and thus a leap year every four years, was used for civil purposes throughout the Roman empire and after its decline, until modified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The Gregorian calendar, which we still use, modified the Julian rule for leap years by omitting them in those centurial years which are not divisible by 400, e.g. 1700, 1800 and 1900.

Following the rise of Christianity, the beginning of the year tended to be determined by religious rather than physical factors. Many societies favoured the “Nativity style,” which adopted December 25 as New Year’s Day, but in the fourteenth century the English reverted to the “Annunciation style,” beginning the year on March 25, and did not substitute the “Circumcision style,” January 1, until the (belated) intro­duction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

Other, non-Christian cultures observe both the commencement and length of years on other bases, typically lunar as in the case of Muslim and Jewish calendars. In India, the traditional year was adapted to march with the Gregorian calendar in 1957, with the Indian New Year’s Day, 1 Chaitra 1879 Saka, coinciding with 22 March of that

All of which simply go that what we choose to call New Year’s Day has far from universal acceptance, is of relatively recent origin and has no astronomical significance.

A second point to be noted is that our slavish following of Euro/American forms means that in the Southern Hemisphere we are making whoopee at the decline of the Sun, the decay of the year and the inevitability of winter to come. This anachronism is further underscored by the retention of those wholly inappropriate symbols ludi­crously plastered over almost every shop widow—the artificial holly and polystyrene snow—to say nothing of the serried ranks of Santa Clauses sweating on the verge of heatstroke. It is thus, within a week of midsummer’s day, we ape the manners and customs of high latitude societies in the Northern Hemisphere. Who is in need of decolonisation?

If time and relevance may be questioned then what about place? Where are we to stand should we choose to be amongst the first to see sunrise on January 1, or for that matter December 25?

Our calendar and civil time are based on those of Greenwich. Since New Zealand is half way around the world east of Greenwich meridian, our clocks must show 12 hours fast, for we see the Sun over the yardarm half a day ahead of the residents of Greenwich. However, if you travel yet further east you do not gain more time, for you cross the International Date Line and “lose” a whole day, becoming 12 hours behind GMT.

Were we not to observe this convention, then as you travelled eastwards from Greenwich, continu­ously advancing your watch to agree with local time, on arrival back in London you would be 24 hours, or one day, ahead of the stay-at-homes. This was, of course, the twist at the end of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days which enabled Phileas Fogg to snatch victory with minutes to spare, for by his diary he had been nearly eighty-one days on his circum­navigation, while the members of his club were still anxiously waiting for the eightieth to close—and their wager to be won.

Now although the International Date Line is set on Longitude 180° East, it deviates from that meridian in a number of places so as to avoid an arbitrary bisection of those societies and states which would otherwise be divided by the line, something which would be both confusing and incon­venient. It is for this reason that the Chathams march to the same drum as the rest of us, and the people of the Kingdom of Tonga are enabled to agree as to the day’s date.

North of Latitude 44° N the date line zigs west, then zags east in order to thread the Bering Sea and Strait without further confusing the Aleutian Islanders or the Inuit of Cukotskij Poluostrov.

A glaring exception to the rule of national uniformity of date has been, until lately, the Republic of Kiribati, which comprises, in the west, Banaba (Ocean Island), 169° 33′ E, the Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands, at the extreme east of which is Caroline Island, 150° 12′ W. This scatter of islands over 40° of longitude was divided by the International Date Line, which ran between the Gilberts and the Phoenix Group.

In 1994, the Republic of Kiribati made the decision that all of its territories should keep the same date, for all that they continue to observe the appropriate zone times. Thus, as of January 1, 1995, the date line was deemed to be redrawn so as to include all the islands of Kiribati in the eastern hemisphere. From that date the zone time of Caroline Island became +14 hours rather than -10 hours, so now, when it is Tuesday noon at Bairiki, it is Tuesday 2 P.M. on Caroline rather than, as it has been, Monday 2 P.M.

Thus Caroline Island is now in pole position in the race for “first light,” even though January 1 falls near the southern summer solstice.

To determine the time of sunrise, one needs to plot the dawn terminator, the line between night and day. At the equinoxes (March 21 and September 23) the dawn terminator coincides with a meridian (a line of longi­tude), for it is on those two dates that the great circle of the terminator can coincide with a great circle through the poles, as shown in the diagram. On these days, observers standing anywhere on the meridian will see dawn break at the same time. At all other times, because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to the plane of its orbit about the Sun (the “obliquity of the ecliptic”), the terminator makes an angle with the meridians.

At the solstices, places north and south of latitude ± 66° 34′, (90° minus 23° 26’—the angle of the Earth’s tilt) will have either a 24-hour night or a 24-hour day. In January, the Sun does not dip below the Antarctic horizon, while in the Arctic the infamous Polar Night foreshadows the death of the Cosmos.

So, where to stand to see the Sun first, either in 1996 or on the first day of the new millennium? Caroline Island wins by a clear 16 minutes over the Chathams, but it is not an easy place to visit. Only occasionally inhabited, and difficult of access, it may require a protracted stay. The Pacific Pilot Vol. III notes that there is only a single narrow passage through the reef, and some slick seamanship is needed, as at the landward end the channel is obstructed by a large coral head, and is impassable in adverse winds.

At the other extreme is Cape Goodenough, on the Antarctic coast, longitude 124° 20′ E, where, in the absence of cloud cover and abnormal refraction, you will be able to see the upper limb of the Sun just peep above the sea horizon on January 1 at 00h.

Clearly, for devotees of the first light, Caroline Island is the location of choice, for it has a cast iron claim to greet the Sun first on January 1, or indeed any other day of the year. However, for those whose interest is more social than phenomenological, then maybe the summit of Pipitawarai on the Chathams—complete with napery, the superb local kaimoana and that most politically incorrect of drinks in its specially shaped glass—is to be preferred.

But surely all this is beside the point; for us, January 1 remains an observance of forms and superstitions of an alien culture, an attention to appearances rather than the underlying reality. The fact is that on June 21, 1996, at NZST 14h 23m 45s, our winter solstice occurs—falling nicely within the span of a protracted celebratory lunch which, with care, can usefully be extended into a convivial evening.

What excuse will it be that calls you away from the workplace? A sudden bereavement? An acute migraine? Or urgent atten­tion at your friend Bunbury’s sickbed?