If you’re anything like me you’re probably asking yourself, “How the hell did I go from dancing under fireworks to being knee-deep into January in the blink of a cloudy eye?”
It happens to me every year and, invariably, I need the first two weeks in January just to get a firm footing on my rickety raft of a life. Which, even more invariably, gives me a deep sense of being ‘behind’ in some great ineffable race.
Part of the reason for this is that we (it can’t be just me, can it?) tend to put so much emphasis on the 1st of January itself. Which is not all that surprising, since we love beginnings no matter how arbitrary they might be. But the need to ‘hit the ground running’ or ‘get off on the right foot’ (or whatever other bloody annoying corporate-speak you wish to use) usually results in us tripping over said “right feet” and going splat into a stinking pile of new-year cynicism.
We could argue all day about how modern festivals have been hijacked by corporations in some deranged endeavour to increase the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but I would argue that there’s actually an opportunity nestled amongst the discarded tinsel.
Rather than bemoan what holidays in the west have become, it would be healthier to re-appropriate these ‘arbitrary’ times for ourselves on a personal level.
Wait. WAIT! Put down your torches and pitchforks, I’m not we should have a ‘War for/on/with Christmas’ or anything else as stupid as that. What I’m saying is that, if we already see these festivals as ‘just another day in the year’, then we could choose to make them more than that for ourselves. One way of doing that would be to analyse earlier customs that underpin the ones we celebrate today and try to rekindle some of their basic values.
This is not a Christmas article, though, it’s a January article and I think this is as good an excuse as any to look into that name. Names are powerful and they often hint at meanings with loftier, more mythic values than ‘real life’ usually allows us. Values that could benefit us more now than ever.
Janus – Father of Doors
The name for January comes from the Roman god Janus and this is the case for the first month in the year for most other Indo-European languages, so there must be something to it!
Janus’ is the face you can see at the top of this article. Or faces, I should say, and there appears to be a good reason for him having two of them.
You see, Janus was the god of transitions, specifically beginnings, which is why he is most often referred to as a ‘god of doors’. In fact, he didn’t even have a temple in ancient Rome. Instead, he had an open enclosure with two seemingly unnecessary gates at either end of it.
Except these gates were far from unnecessary. During times of war they were left open and were only closed again when peace was achieved. They didn’t protect or contain anything of ‘real’ tangible value. These doors were figurative but the Romans took them extremely seriously because they symbolised important transitions of state for the entire populace.
The importance placed on shifting states of being is one we often only think about when we get another year older, especially after we stop getting toys and start worrying about being ‘another year older’. Perspective is everything, you see?
Janus may have had no temple nor even his own official priest but he was still propitiated at every religious ceremony. He ‘introduced’ every other deity, he opened the doors to every new phase of life, since he was the god of beginnings, of abundance and of fathering fecundity.
(Alright, I admit I kept that last part in because it’s a fun thing to say AND write! But it doesn’t take away from the truth of it!)
Janus’ role in Roman society, then, was more than just some ‘celestial doorman’. The Romans believed beginnings were omens of the future but Janus’ double-faced glare warned them that omens were products of their past too.
The Mischief Wrought Behind Your Back
There are tonnes of theories as to why exactly Janus had two faces but the one I like best (and the one that so helpfully lends itself towards proving my point) comes from legendary social anthropologist Sir James Frazer.
Now, Frazer was far from perfect and his most famous book, The Golden Bough, has been infuriating and scandalising people for over a century. But, in those immortal words, even a blind squirrel can find a nut every once in a while. And it is precisely that ‘nut’ that I think defines the purpose of January.
When trying to define why a ‘guardian’ god would have a face on the front and back of his head, Frazer said:
“If the divine watchman always faced in one direction, it is easy to imagine what mischief might have been wrought with impunity behind his back.”
In the case of reviewing our own Januaries, it’s not so much the mischief wrought by others that we need to concern ourselves with. It’s our own mischief. Our past actions, our mistakes and careless words which, if forgotten and unchecked, will return again and again to wreak havoc on our lives year after year.
It’s A Month For A Reason
We move so fast! Even the least cynical of us often find ourselves facing New Year’s Day with the dread of an oncoming year full of fucking horrors and that was true before we had pandemics poisoning living memory. Those of us optimistic enough to still make ‘resolutions’ do so when we’re either stressed, drunk or hungover and we’re left with a foreboding sense of failure of living up to them long before the New Year’s bells ring.
January lasts a whole month for a reason. Sure, ancient Roman months lasted a different amount of time and humans have changed and wrangled their calendars so much throughout history that, today, they’re wonderfully (albeit useful) arbitrary tools for life. But hear me out in what may just be mythological madness. Deified delirium, perhaps. Or maybe just COVID-induced crackpot-ramblings.
If we were to ease off the accelerator on 1st January and take the whole month to sit back and assess where we went wrong last year, or where we went right. How we improved on the year before and make some mad, hubristic guesses at how we could keep on improving in the year to come. If we could give ourselves 31 days (minus the hangovers) to take a clear look backwards and forwards, we might just set ourselves up for a pretty good year to come.
Providing a worse COVID-mutation doesn’t come along and bugger it up, of course.
In which case, let’s just look back on the memes we loved and look forward to sharing those chuckles with people in the future.
Sometimes that’s all you’ve got and all you need.