“The Best and Worst of the Decade,” proclaimed the magazine’s headline, which introduced a series of photos and captions with those invented ratings so beloved by editors to mark historical breaking points such as centuries and decades. The New York Times, not to be outdone, last Sunday invited 10 writers to contribute to a feature titled “The Decade We Had.”
A few years ago, when we were changing from 1999 to 2000, a large number of media people (NBC’s Brian Williams was a notable exception) surmised — without thinking — that it denoted a change from one century to another. It did not. The centuries actually changed from the 20th to the 21st one year later, on January 1, 2001.
Now, many of these same media folk have surmised that the first decade of the new century ends this Thursday, December 31, followed by a new one the next day. Collectively, they seem to have forgotten that the world normally count from One to 10 or One to 100, not Zero to 9 or Zero to 99.
The Christian dating system (“Anno Domine” — “The Year of Our Lord”) was based on the assumption that the First Century was the one in which Christ lived. Many theologians concluded he had been born in the Year One and was crucified when he was about 33 years of age. No one argued that he was born in the Zero Century.
The “A.D.” gradually became a worldwide standard so that in deference to non-Christian users its dates are now widely designated as “C.E.” or Common Era.
If you think this coming Friday is the beginning of a new decade, just remember to change a lifetime’s worth of dating everything in the normal way and start counting from Zero to Nine.
Confusion has marked many other aspects of New Year celebrations. There’s nothing “new” about the event. The Babylonians began celebrating it about 4,000 years ago, only they considered the beginning of the year to occur with the first new moon after the Vernal Equinox (the first day of spring). The Romans, great assimilators of other people’s traditions, continued this. Then, in 153 B.C., the Roman senate decreed January 1 to be the start of the new year.
As Christianity spread, the church frowned on New Year’s Day celebrations, considering them to be a pagan holdover. Gradually, opposition declined, but the holiday has been widely celebrated in the West for only some 400 years.
The Babylonians also started the New Year’s resolution parade. Their favorite wasn’t weight loss or quitting smoking, but vowing to return borrowed farm tools.
A sprightly baby, the ubiquitous symbol of the new year in the United States, is actually an old-timer, dating from 600 B.C. in Greece. Folks showed off babies in baskets to celebrate Dionysius, the god of wine. Their babies symbolized his annual rebirth.
Father Time, who is always paired with the baby, is a more modern invention. It is unsettling to think that this stooped old geezer, often carrying a scythe, was, just 365 days before, a rambunctious baby. Tempus fugit–time flies–but not quite fast enough for those jump-the-gun journalists. So, as you declare “Happy New Year” to loved ones and friends at the stroke of midnight Thursday night (accompanied by kisses and champagne), remember, you’ll have another year to go before you drink a toast to a new decade.
(Peter Hannaford expects to celebrate the New Year at about 10 p.m. the night before.)