The physics of New Year
I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the Internet, trying to find out why virtually all human societies commemorate New Year with ceremonies, rituals or both.
The concepts that keep cropping up are “renewal” and “rebirth,” which are often mentioned in connection with agriculture. The New Year is widely heralded, as a fresh beginning and venerated through rituals signifying rebirth.
Agriculture, of course, is a physical system. It is a method many animals (e.g., humans, some ant species and certain microbial organisms) have devised for harvesting energy under controlled, sedentary conditions.
Agricultural activity consists mainly of raising livestock and growing food crops. Some ant species, for example, raise aphids (lice) as livestock and “milk” them, while there are reports of other insects growing fungi as foodstuff.
Human agriculture, in particular, depends on the availability and pattern of sunlight. Plants use the Sun’s energy to produce the proteins, fats and sugars that sustain higher lifeforms on Earth.
In addition, energy from the Sun creates seasonal and climatic conditions, which impinge heavily on crop production. This includes sun-driven processes, such as wind and ocean currents as well as temperature—and especially rainfall.
Rainfall is the sine qua non of human agriculture. Yet rain is seasonal, not regular. It varies, according to region and the time of year. These variations arise from Earth’s axial tilt, combined with changes in its orientation in orbit.
During its annual trip around the Sun, Earth covers 940 million km, in roughly 365.2422 days—averaging 108,000 km per hour. In the course of this orbital sprint, the planet’s tilted poles reverse their position at six-month intervals.
Like meat on a revolving skewer, Earth’s rotating surface is irradiated, with intensities varying periodically and from place to place: Hence the regional rainfall and temperature patterns, which we experience as “seasons”.
These seasonal rhythms have imposed a distinctive cadence on human culture—and are, in all likelihood, the sources of modern New Year celebrations everywhere.
So critical is agriculture, to group survival, that the physical forces which defined the food production cycle, would naturally take on ritual dimensions. Ritual is a means of remembering and emphasizing the survival value of the cycle.
Most cultures take their cue from celestial bodies, usually the Sun. The Black South African cosmologist, Thebe Madupe, believes this is the origin of Stone Circles; and my work in Cross River State supports his contention.
But in the geographical Sudan (which includes Senegal, Ethiopia, modern Sudan and ancient Egypt) the dawn appearance of the bright star Sirius, presaged the flooding of the Nile and Senegal Rivers, to begin the agricultural cycle.
In ancient Egypt, the revival of agricultural activity gave rise to the notion of resurrection and rebirth—which has found its way into modern religions as well as New Year rituals, in Asia, the U.S.A. and Europe.
Writing in his classic, The Golden Bough, the British anthropologist, Sir James George Frazer attributed the idea to the Egyptian cult of Isis, whose mythology arose from the “annual flooding of the Nile” and its “renewing [of] the soil each year…”
Globally, traditional New Year celebrations tend to cluster around the solstices and the equinoxes—falling mainly in April/March or August/September. Even in the Western world, says Earth Sky.Org, New Year was formerly in March, until the Romans changed it.
The notions of “rebirth” and “renewal” are integral aspects of New Year celebrations the world over. In Japan, for example, green plants and bamboo symbolize new life, while in Spain celebrants eat 12 grapes to bring good luck and signify a new beginning.