OF ALL THE GOOFS of history (including George Washington's decision to locate the capital in the swamp that now bears his name), few compare to the one that set New Year's at the beginning of January when the real start of the New Year is, unquestionably, Labor Day. Happy New Year.
Labor Day is the beginning of a new season. It is the time when the nights grow cooler, even though the days stay warm. In some parts of the country Labor Day is when you start to need a sweater at night, and when I worked as a kid at beach clubs, I noticed that you did not want to swim after Labor Day. It suddenly made no sense. No season seems to end as abruptly as summer.
There is none of that feeling to New Year's.New Year's is just a day at the beginning of a dismal month in the middle of the winter. The weather does not change.The seasons do not change. It has nothing to do with harvests or planting or food or anything like that. It is just a day the Romans, who also brought us the orgy and the circus, picked to start the new year (two out of three ain't bad). But for us nowadays, New Year's comes down to nothing more than a party, a day off and then a return to work.
But Labor Day -- sweet, sweet Labor Day -- is more than just a day when the working man can have some time off. It marks the beginning of the school year. We all returned to school for so many years that our body calendars are permanently set. This is when the year really begins. This is when we made our resolutions. This is when we vowed that we would study and that we would make new friends and that we would behave in class.
The beginning of school is a magical time. It always offered the promise of a fresh start. Every September I got born again. The marks I got last year didn't matter. What the teacher thought of me last year didn't matter, either. In September, I got new teachers, and I could get any mark I wanted. It was up to me.
I got new notebooks, too. I went to the store and bought them. I bought spiral notebooks and looseleaf books with dividers and got a little assignment book and vowed that this year -- unlike all other years -- I would take good notes -- neat notes, clean notes. It goes without saying that within two weeks, my notebooks were a collection of doodles and limericks and hearts with arrows drawn through them. It goes without saying, also, that in two weeks I had lost most of my notebooks and was reduced to a single looseleaf with no dividers, which I used for every course, even hygiene -- a course, as best as I can remember, about brushing your teeth.
Now, years later, this feeling of a new start is still with me. Things are still a bit like they were in school. Around Labor Day, people still come back from vacation. The season still changes. I still vow to try harder. I make resolutions about my work, how I'm going to get my column in early and not write on deadline and answer the mail when it comes. I'm going to start getting up earlier and going to sleep earlier (goodbye, Johnny Carson) and spend more time with my son.
I feel none of this on Jan. 1. I feel instead that someone forced a holiday on me that has nothing to do with a season or a mood.Nothing changes by a pge on the calendar. Not a season. Not the weather. Not the routine. Maybe for that reason people drink too much on New Year's Eve. Maybe for that reason they try too hard to have a good time. Their body rhythms, the season and common sense are all fighting the occasion because there is really no occasion.
But now the days seem to be growing suddenly shorter. At the beach especially, the nights hve a cool edge to them. Now the catalogues have arrived, and I am looking at sweaters and bombadier-style leather jackets with wool collars. Now I feel this urge to buy a notebook and stare at the clean pages, turning them one by one and wondering if this is the year I will fill them with neat, wonderful notes, if this is the year I will work and play well with others, if this is the year I will make the team, get the girl, win a fight. . . Anything is possible. It's Labor Day, after all.
Happy New Year!