“Happy Arbitrary New Year”

January 2020 calendar

A friend on social media wished everyone a “happy arbitrary new year” last night. And it got me thinking.

We all know — right? — that there’s a variety of dating systems that have existed historically, let alone today (case in point: see the January 25th Chinese new year on that image up above…?). So, at some level, most of us surely understand that it isn’t really the start of a new year today. Instead, should we grant the Gregorian calendar‘s legitimacy for how we organize time, then, yes, today is the start of a new year.

The interesting thing, though, is that with sufficient granting, so to speak, we seem to forget the utter playfulness — and yes, arbitrariness — to how we use those things we call calendars, not to mention clocks, to create a sense of time moving forward. Because, first thing you know, some moment “just feels” like a Friday night or, better put, the New Year’s morning after the night before.

Graphic from The Hangover movie

My point?

Identifying the invented and authorized nature of certain things that surround us in daily life (things that undoubtedly help to make that sense of a daily life livable and move-around-within-able: I have in mind everything thing from lines down the middle of our roads to how you set the table for dinner) is all about the fascination some of us have with how real and self-evident we tend to make these things seem to be, despite what, with a little effort, can be demonstrated to be their rather mundane, concocted, and thus contestable nature. No matter what item you focus on in doing this sort of work (and, yes, some in our field look at the very designations “religion,” “myth” or “ritual” and “tradition” with all this in mind, not to mention “nationality,” “gender,” “race,” and “class,” to name but a few), the work strikes me as being all about not just recovering the often overlooked playfulness to things but, also, about identifying the ways that we all make things really real by instituting and then policing mechanisms to overlook the playfulness, thereby disregarding the fact that things could have been otherwise.

So, sure, happy new year and welcome to 2020. I hope it’s a great year. But don’t forget that there’s a variety of different new year’s days throughout the world, all depending on which calendar is in use — each of which surely feels just as real and significant as the other.

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