The science of New Year’s

The end of one year and the beginning of another has been a time of celebration from time immemorial. But celebrating the new year on January 1 is a relatively new innovation.

In the Middle Ages most European countries used the Julian calendar (still used by Orthodox churches), and each New Year began, not on January 1, but on March 25 (a much better time to celebrate than the dead of winter, if you ask me). This was Annunciation Day, the day on which Mary was told she would give birth to the Son of God.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced to Catholic countries in 1582, but it took a while to catch on in many countries. Although Scotland accepted it in 1600, Germany, Denmark and Sweden held out until 1700and England didn’t join in until 1752.

Other cultures continue to celebrate the new year at other times. Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri, which usually falls in September. Chinese New Year falls between our January 10 and February 19.

All of which goes to show that there’s really no scientific reason to celebrate New Year’s Day when we do. After all, the Earth’s orbit has no beginning or end, so any day can be considered the start of another year’s journey around the sun.

Champagne is a modern New Year’s Eve tradition, because humans have long celebrated just about everything with alcohol, and in our culture champagne has become associated with the most special celebrations.

The champagne method of making sparkling wine was discovered by the monk Dom Perignon, supposed to have been the first person to stopper wine bottles with a cork.

At that time, wines were bottled while still fermenting. The cork stopper forced the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation back into the wine. The result, Dom Perignon said, tasted “like stars.”

Today, champagne is made by bottling a blend of wines with a small quantity of sugar. This fuels a second fermentation, the carbon dioxide from which causes the wine to become bubbly. After three to five years, the bottles are uncorked and the sediment removed; then the wine is recorked and is ready to drink.

You may very well be sipping your champagne in between dances on New Year’s Eve. When you dance, you can impress your partner by telling her that what you’re actually doing is “transforming ordinary functional and expressive movement into extraordinary movement for extraordinary purposes.”

The human body can rotate, bend, stretch, jump and turn in an almost infinite number of ways. Different dances are created by emphasizing different combinations of these elements.

We dance because it’s hard-wired into us. Many animals perform dancelike movements in situations similar to human courtship or play, but human dancing is unique because of the symbolism we’ve attached to it.

In some cultures, dances are religious; in some, they can even be a part of work, their flowing movements making a task go more quickly and efficiently (the Japanese, for instance, have a “rice-planting” dance). For us, dancing–at least, the dancing the average person participates in–is primarily an opportunity to socialize, sometimes with a strong element of courtship thrown in. (Hmm. Maybe human dancing isn’t all that different from the dancing of animals after all.)\

Modern social dancing usually involves a few simple, easily learned steps, so that people with varying degrees of skill can still participate. (“Easily learned” is the phrase used in my encyclopedia; your mileage may vary!)

After or during the dancing, the time will come when the clock strikes 12. That moment is usually celebrated with noisemakers and fireworks–probably a hold-over from other mid-winter celebrations that have been held throughout human history, a celebration of the fact the days are finally getting longer. In some cultures, noise is important because it frightens away a monster of some sort that has been devouring the sun.

With our plethora of overlapping cultures in North America, different families have different traditions surrounding New Year’s, usually involving a ritual intended to guarantee good luck in the new year.

Most of these I find pretty silly, because people in my family know there’s only one thing that really brings you good luck: eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day (usually with cheese grits on the side, although they’re optional). They’ll certainly be a part of my diet on Monday, and if you take my advice, they’ll be part of yours, too.

Happy New Year, y’all!

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