“The idea of a man’s duty to his possessions, to which he subordinates himself as an obedient steward, or even as an acquisitive machine, bears with chilling weight on his life. The greater the possessions the heavier, if the ascetic attitude toward life stands the test, the feeling of responsibility for them, for holding them undiminished for the glory of God and increasing them by restless effort. The origin of this type of life also extends in certain roots, like so many aspects of the spirit of capitalism, back into the Middle Ages. But it was in the ethic of ascetic Protestantism that it first found a consistent ethical foundation. Its significance for the development of capitalism is obvious”. – Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge, New York, 2005, pp. 114-115
Come midnight of December 31, everywhere one would see pompous celebrations of the coming New Year. Markets lit up right from Christmas Eve, attracting consumers with various discount schemes. Travel agencies advertise their packages for tourist destinations. Electronic media houses broadcast live celebrations starting from Australia with squandering firecracker shows. Wining and dining on New Year’s night has become a culture, and hoteliers take advantage to extract this business opportunity. Why do we celebrate this as a New Year? What is the cultural or environmental significance behind it? Is humanity doing so for ages with some scientific thinking? These and many other questions emerge while watching these celebrations.
Younger generations would be surprised to know that celebrating January 1 is a very recent phenomenon. Until the mid-eighteenth century, even Great Britain and America used to observe March 25 as the New Year. It is believed that Roman king Numa Pompilius revised the Roman calendar so that January, named after Janus, the Roman God of all beginnings, replaced March as the first month somewhere in 43 BC. Till then, March was the beginning of the year. The sequence of other months, like September (Seven) to December (Tenth), also matches with the corresponding numbers. Even after resetting the calendar from January, the miscalculations concerning leap years continued. Pope Gregory XIII introduced a revised calendar in 1582, and January 1 was restored as the start of the New Year with a new calculation for February in a leap year. Protestant countries like Great Britain adopted it in 1752. So, the entire Gregorian calendar is an outcome of trial and error by the Church, which conveniently clubbed the commencement of New Year with Christmas, that is, December 25, the Church proclaimed birthday of Jesus Christ.
During the Roman period, Christmas and the New-Year celebration must have been a family affair with some religious significance. Later, European colonisation entirely distorted that spirit. The mindless combination of individual materialism and capitalist profit-making killed the entire essence of festivity. Often this is associated with the Americanisation of Christmas. The influence of Coca-Cola on the iconography of Santa Claus, an imaginary character, is well known. Naturally, the loving and gifting Santa does not match the original historical personality of St Nicholas. Boxing Day, gifting, and shopping are the gimmicks strongly associated with the brands and marketing techniques, further flourishing with the globalised market economy. Hence, the market forces have yet to fund any systematic study of these Church-created and capitalism-sponsored festivities on environmental degradation. Protestant ethics being the fundamental ethical spirit behind capitalism, as Max Weber had argued, the ‘pagan festivals’ are freely targeted in the name of environmentalism.
In Bharat, there are multiple new years, each rooted in the local context and agricultural seasons. Each Bharatiya festival, though having religious connotations and some legend associated with it, is somewhere linked to the scientific understanding of the Panchang, a multidimensional calendar followed for thousands of years. Adding a few more festivals or iconic characters to such enormous diversity does not belittle the Bharatiya culture. The core issues are the universal and colonial imposition of Anglo-Saxon values through the Church and its proselytising tendencies. For the same reasons, countries like Israel and, to some extent, China have systematically eschewed the celebrations of these European-American festivities and reinforced their sense of distinct identity through national festivals. While blindly imitating and adopting environmentally disastrous practices, we must mull over the roots, philosophy and historicity of those celebrations and their impact on our culture and environment.