For many cultures, both past and present, the new year does not begin on January 1. The Celtic people’s new year kicked off with Samhain, a feast that subsequently became Christianised, mixed in with the feast of All Saints, and which nowadays has been trivialised and disneyfied as Halloween. The Chinese New Year, calculated on the basis of the lunar cycle, can take place any time between January 21 and February 20 and can be regarded as a full and hearty Bye-bye to winter. Based on even more arcane astronomical observations, the Islamic New Year bounces around the place when seen from the perspective of our Western, Gregorian calendar. Muslims do not crack open the champagne or set the sky alight with fireworks to mark Al-Hijra, and the bagpipes are left unmolested on this day (yippee, says I!), but new year’s resolutions are nonetheless made.
For your author, New Year occurred on Monday last, the first Monday of September. For as far back as I can remember this Monday marked the end of the summer holidays and the commencement of real, day-to-day life, be that in the form of school or work. It was my five-year-old self who first learned that the last weekend in August was the end of one mode of being (short-panted, sun-kissed freedom) and the beginning of another (desk-bound, clock-tied routine). And since that burned-in-the-memory, traumatic morning I aimed a resentful kick at Mrs O’Connor’s shin the first day of junior infants in 1980, I have not been able to escape from the gravitational pull of a cycle the time zero of which is September 1.
If eight years in primary school hadn’t etched the rhythms of the academic year into my operating system, then five more in secondary school sure as hell did. By the time I got to university and was given fancy names for the “seasons” (Michaelmas = September to Christmas; Hilary = January to Easter; Trinity = Easter to June) I was a goner — unless I joined the Hare Krishnas or took myself off to North Korea for reprogramming, there was no way my body clock would ever shake off the shackles of Michael, Hilary and that other quare fella. Then, sure proof that I’d become a slave to the ‘masses, institutionalised, if you will, I, spent the best part of my twenties and early thirties knocking around universities, picking up the odd masters here, a PhD there, growing my bugs and assiduously ignoring the world beyond the campus walls.
And let me tell you this: there’s nothing like being a postgrad or postdoctoral researcher in a university to hammer home the importance of that red line that marks the end of one academic year and the beginning of another. Summers on campus are glorious. Peace and silence reign. There are no queues in the cafes or restaurants. Corridors and atria are uncluttered. Parking is heaven. Administrative staff are unhurried, unfrazzled and even pleasant to deal with. Benches in labs are empty of fumbling, bumbling, accident-prone undergrads. The catchphrase throughout June, July and August is: “University life would be so sweet were it not for the students”. But, lo and behold, September swings around — God-darned Michaelmas — and those pesky undergrads swarm back on to campus, breaking the magic spell which had all us full-timers in its thrall.
I’m out of the university scene for a few years now, but I just can’t escape the tyranny of the academic year. The two most important little critters in my life, my daughters, who are attending primary school, are every bit as under the thumb of the academic year as I was, by proxy, making September 1 and all the other dates that stand like milestones along the school year scream out in highlighted bold on my Outlook calendar. Unless my daughters become two of those super-precocious dropouts politely known as “early school leavers” it looks like I’m facing into at least another eleven or twelve years of September being the locomotive that pulls the eleven other carriages of the year up the hill behind it. Rather than the winding down of the year, Christmas will probably always be just a nice break between first term and second, while New Year’s Eve will, as it ever has, hold little meaning for me. As for New Year’s resolutions: I fretted over them last week while on holiday in Ireland and I have a long “to do” list for Michaelmas 2015. I’m not telling anyone, though!