A Time to Reflect and Renew
New Years is the holiday most defined by its place on the calendar—an unavoidable marker of the end of one era and the beginning of another. It’s the hard and fast line that we all note by having to cross out and then rewrite the year on checks, readjust tax withholdings, and face the dreaded annual “auto-renewal” fees for yearly services. It is both a step away from any unpleasantness of the previous year, and a hope for better things in the new, as illusory as those distinctions may be. We all hope for the best in any case, and that’s what makes it a singular holiday of goodwill and anticipation of better things.
The current New Years Day of January first may seem as if it has been an eternal part of the human experience, but it has actually only been observed since 1752, when the calendar was adjusted from a March beginning to a January one. As a result of the change, a large number of significant events have occurred on January first since the mid-eighteenth century, typically as part of legislation or official declarations in need of a starting point. In many ways, it can be seen as a time to make the most serious of resolutions and decisions that reflect one’s best hopes and sincerest desires.
The United Kingdom, for instance, was officially formed on Jan 1, 1801, creating the modern geo-political state still recognized today. The move combined the governments of the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Britain into a joint entity. While obviously this resulted in further conflict in Ireland, at the time the move was hailed as a new step forward toward a better, and more unified government.
In the American experience, the most significant resolution is probably the Emancipation Proclamation, which was officially issued on September 22, 1862, and went into effect on January 1, 1863 to begin the new year. In the official proclamation, Lincoln wrote: “On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
While the Civil War continued for two more years, the move was an idealistic statement about the fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal,” and that the pursuit of such freedom was an essential component of the United States moving forward. Lincoln himself ruminated many times on the importance of resolution and resolve. According to biographer Allen Guelzo, Lincoln stated “I never in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper…If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say ‘He hesitated.’”
The move set into place a resolution so firm that it became irrevocable, and a cornerstone of modern American life.
Acts as impactful as the Emancipation Proclamation are rare, of course, but New Years has also managed to generate other indelible elements of our history.
Ellis Island, the iconic entry point for immigration into the country, officially opened on New Year’s Day in 1892, opening the way for thousands of Irish, British, Welsh, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Swiss, and other individuals and families seeking a better life from all around the world. While the contours of the immigration discussion have changed over time, the resolve that was expressed on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) is another enduring legacy of American New Year’s resolve.
Outside the realm of major political events, New Year’s day in 1902 also saw the first college football bowl game, between Michigan and Stanford. The game, played in Pasadena, was designated the Rose Bowl, and became one of the most recognizably American New Year’s traditions. The bowl season has clearly expanded, now stretching from little known bowls featuring unheard of teams starting in mid-December to the Championship game playoffs, but that expansion is probably due to the exuberance of fans who embraced the chance to watch highly skilled athletes perform at the highest level.
The Times Square Ball Drop in New York is also a tradition begun on New Years, unsurprisingly. The first ever “ball” was constructed of iron and wood, and weighed in at 700 pounds. It was lowered from the flagpole of the Artkrauft Strauss building, where it completed a circuit and lit up signs celebrating the New Year on either side. New York Times owner Adolph Ochs originally intended the display to be a celebration of the opening of the new newspaper offices downtown, but after the intense public outpouring of affection and gratitude for the event, he resolved to make it a yearly spectacle to kick off the year positively. Despite many changes in the construction and function of the ball in the intervening one hundred and fifteen years, the ball drop has remained a constant, internationally recognized symbol of the turn of the year in America.
So as you contemplate your own resolutions this year, remember that most of them are likely to be forgotten or encounter obstacles along the way. That’s been true of humans ever since they conceived of the idea. But it is possible, even if it isn’t common, to resolve to do something that can change a lot of lives forever. And even I it only changes your life for the better, that certainly is a worthy undertaken.
Happy New Year, and may the best be yours as we head into 2023!