The minute hand passes an arbitrary mark, and we burst onto the porch with pots and pans, rattling our way into newness. We spend a night with cheese platters and a crystal ball lit from within, descending a spire hundreds of miles away. We make promises for betterment: lose weight, quit smoking, win the lottery.
But it remains, still, an arbitrary moment: the dead of night in the dead of winter. It’s not the solstice, which marks the longest night and the sun’s return, or Samhain, when the cows come home and the weaklings are slaughtered. It’s not the equinox, as it was in some cultures: the rising of spring’s greenery as the light balances, an egg on its end. It’s not dawn, when light spills through the blackness, or sunset with the hint of blood and roses. It’s not the pregnant swell of the full moon or the maiden scythe of the first crescent, sighted over the minaret. It’s not the birth of lambs.
We are fascinated, however, with the clock of our own invention. That double-one of “January” and “first” must mean something, right? The turn over of three nines to three zeroes must mark the world’s end — just as when our odometer rolls from 39999 to 40000, the moment acquires some special numerical aura. 2012, too, must mean something: the stone calendar’s end must herald a great change, an utter transformation — something more than whipping out the chisel and carving a new calendar for arbitrary time.
I’ve always found secular New Year a bit puzzling. Time is a golem of our making, the magic of word, human concept, machinery. Time isn’t an element; it’s simply an arbitrary measurement of process. The orbit of planets marks a particular process — a particular species of time, even. The life-cycle of mayflies marks another, one no less important. Processes within processes — affecting each other in impossibly complex ways.
Why do we think that it’s so simple — a matter of human-defined numbers, ones and zeroes and nines? Why do we think that the time we define is the ultimate time?
The heart of winter is the heart of the Cailleach, the stone hag with her vast rhythms, mountains dropping from her skirts. What is our glass ball to her, our pots and pans, our calendars?
Any point of a globe can be its center, and so any bit of “time” can mark the New Year. This day, this hour mean nothing in themselves.