I stand in the doorway between two years. Behind me lies 2016, now in the past; ahead is 2017, still unknown. Like so many people, I am ready to put this year behind me, to slam the door and charge ahead without a thought to the past. The world is weary of 2016. This year brought so much strife and suffering into the world; so much anger and division. I long to hit the reset button and have a fresh start. That’s what the new year is all about, right?
Not so fast.
The celebration of the new year has a long history going back over four thousand years in many cultures around the world, and it has come to symbolize throwing off the burdens of the past and getting to start over. And yet, for the ancient Romans, I suspect that there was another layer to their year-end revels.
The month Januarius was added to the Roman calendar in the 8th century B.C. by a guy named Numa Pompilius, but it wasn’t until Julius Caesar instituted his new Julian calendar in 46 B.C. that the New Year was moved to January 1. Previously, it had been at various points throughout spring and summer. By changing the date to the dead of winter, to the month of Januarius, it was linked to the Roman god Janus, the namesake of the month.
Janus is an interesting god in the Roman pantheon. He is a god with two faces — one perpetually staring into the past and one forever fixed on the future. He is the god of doorways, thresholds and keys (it is from his name that we get the word “janitor.”). Unlike other gods that were straight-up stolen from the Greeks, Janus is an invention of the city of the seven hills.
And though kings and popes continually shifted the date of the new year during the next several hundred years, it eventually found its place back here at the beginning of January; in this dark, cold month when we so long for a reset. I think there’s something still poignant about that placement.
There is a temptation to toss aside the shackles of the past, but we can’t pretend that the last 12 months didn’t happen. We can’t discount the chaos around the world nor our personal struggles. Now is a time, for me at least, to pause and reflect. Today, I’m striving to embody Janus and set my sights on the future, while keeping an eye to the lessons of the past.
Happy New Year.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA who tweets and secretly wonders if odd numbered years are better than even years. What are your hopes for 2017?