Teach us to number our days,
That we may gain a heart of wisdom.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is strange in anyone's language. Enormous energy is expended preparing for a transition time that is, let's be honest, fictional at best.
I don't mean in terms of the angst that followed the fear of the millennium bug, for example, when all the world's computers were meant to fail in the year 2000; or the more recent apoplexy that many experienced in anticipation of the end of days connected to the Mayan calendar.
I mean, simply, that calendars are mechanical approximations upon which human beings, and their attendant institutions, have attached mathematical, astronomical and spiritual value. They describe the passing of days, but the historical events that we assign to a calendar in retrospect are often guestimations.
The 12-month, 365-day calendar that we know today was proclaimed by Julius Caesar (after whom July is named). It remained a dominant system until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar to address the Julian calendar's mishandling of leap years, resulting in almost two weeks of lost days over time.
Pope Gregory also wanted to more closely align the celebration of Easter with the date proposed by the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. As such, Easter marks an approximate year when Christ was crucified (circa AD 30).
It is because of the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars that the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Easter on a different day than the Catholic and Protestant churches.
Moreover, in seeking to adjust the calendar so that the seasons remained constant, Pope Gregory reclaimed 11 "lost" days of the Julian calendar, and indeed, when England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, it had to remove 11 days from the month of September in order to bring itself in line with the rest of the world.
The use of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for In the year of Our Lord) is a reasonably "new" invention as well. Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus, keen to use Christ's birth as the starting point for counting the years, devised the numbering system in the sixth century AD.
However, as much as we would like to believe that 1 AD marks Christ's birth, most scholars - and the Church itself - agree that he was actually born several years earlier.
The reasons for Dionysius' choice of start date are too complex to be summarized here, though I should confess that as a child I couldn't fathom how the Romans learned to count the years of their reign in reverse and wondered how they must have felt when they reached 3, 2 and 1 BC.
I pictured a centurion declaring, "One more year and we can start counting forwards!"
The point of all this is not simply to ruminate on our rather ingenious efforts to count the years, but rather to suggest that the real focus of New Year's Day should be a joyous celebration of Jesus of Nazareth's arrival into our world.
As with everything we do as flawed human beings, our calendars have glaring imperfections. But what cannot be denied is the exquisite moment of celebration that is intended by the marking of our days, acknowledging that, "unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" (Isaiah 9.6). That, surely, is a date to remember.
(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)