When the great sun has turned his face away,
The earth goes down into a vale of grief,
And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,
Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay –
Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses”
– Charles Kingsley
This first month of the Gregorian calendar is a time for reflection, self-flagellation and cynicism. It is the nadir of the solar year and the emotional equivalent of the basement level in the underground parking lot of life. January is named after a feckless Roman God named Janus – the God of all passages. Literally translated, he is the God of Doors and Gates. We essentially named the first month of the year after a guy who stands with a clipboard and velvet rope deciding which of us gets to go through into the new year. As jobs go on Mt Olympus, being an immortal doorman was not the best assignment. You could be responsible for oceans like Poseiden or the underworld like Hades – where there were very good parties and no supervision. Personally, I admire the lesser known Gods like Lecheros who was the God of Greek fitness instructors.
Yet, I identify with Janus. I imagine him as class clown – overweight and acerbic sitting at the back of Zeus’ lectures as he wisecracked under his voice and passed notes to Aphrodite in hopes that she might go out on a date with him. There were no mirrors in Janus’ house and he filled his garden with laughing hyenas. He thought he was funny. Perhaps after a tenth consecutive rejection from Aphrodite who was dating Apollo because he had biceps and a fast car, Janus snapped and made a flip remark about Zeus looking a little “prosperous” in his tunic. “Has our divine father violated the laws of moderation or perhaps he has mistakenly sat on the empire of Gaul by mistake?“
The next thing he knows, Janus is passing out hand towels in the Mount Olympus executive bathroom. After a millennia of squeezing soap into the hands of lesser Titans, Janus is finally promoted and immortalized as the Father of January responsible for the first 31 days of the year. In the Northern hemisphere, this assignment is clearly a punishment. South of the equator, it is a pretty good gig especially January 1st in Rio.
A northern longitude January is not a time to be a mammal. As warm-blooded, propagating, card-carrying primates, we were designed to be dormant creatures in winter. It is our genetic predisposition to gorge on fatty, high carbohydrate foods, eat take out, and then root around for warm, dark places to hibernate. Some mammals choose to hibernate symbolically eschewing social engagements and hiding out under generous oversized winter clothing. Others retreat into mahogany cocoons of work.
It is a fact that our brain chemistry changes with the lack of winter light. We become irritable and restless. Sleep eludes us. Our dopamine and serotonin receptors begin to flicker. Our brains become a rolling brown out of highs and lows as we grow desperate for a 12 hour day of sun and the green grass of spring.
The first month of the year can be an endless squall line of Alberta clipper storm systems surging down from the Great Lakes that pull in moisture from the South – producing snow and myriad reasons to be lethargic. Lethargy and self-pity are two overly maligned character defects that can turn even the most selfless among us turn into an effective whiner and complainer. Janus intended that his month should have this effect on us. If he had to guard all doors and public bathrooms, no one was going to be very happy in his month.
He decided January would be a time for remorse, resolutions and a mounting physical and emotional pressure to change – preferably into a Greek God of War with a pimped out V12 car. It would be up to us as mere mortals to float above our weaknesses, fueled by the hot air and methane of good intentions, poor digestion and self-loathing.
A few brave souls seek to defy the laws of hibernation and embrace January. They firmly rest their hands on their hips, throw their heads back and offer the God Janus their most indignant pirate laugh. These mockers of the Janus own an entire super hero wardrobe of spandex, Gortex, okaytex, Underarmour, and polypro clothing. They have snow shoes, ice axes, crampons, cross-country skis, snow skis, ice fishing shacks, snow sleds, snow mobiles and snow saws for building igloos. These hardy souls secretly want to hit a patch of black ice, skid into a ditch and use all their survival training until they are rescued and offered an opportunity to be featured on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive”. These winter-lovers are perpetually happy. While you are scrawling “I hate winter” on the frosted mirror of your bathroom that never heats up, these psychotic winter sprites are outdoors shoveling snow or preparing for a Polar Bear plunge in Long Island Sound.
The Saxons referred to January as “Wulf-monath”, the month of the wolf. Others considered it “the time of ice”. The month has a bad track record in history. Instead of just laying low, mortals feel the need to betray their natural instincts and crawl out of hibernation. The need to get a head start on the Gregorian calendar has caused many well-intentioned world leaders to move across a denuded landscape of poor choices to attempt to influence the trajectory of a new year.
In 1644, Brit Guy Fawkes was convicted of attempting to blow up Parliament. It seems dissatisfaction with a two-party system and government waste traces its roots well beyond the 112th Congress. Fast forward to January, 1862, when the first income tax was proposed of 3% on incomes above $ 600 increasing up to 5% for incomes up to $ 10,000. I mean, really. As if fighting the Civil War was not enough, the average American had to file their first income tax return. In 1874, New York City annexed the Bronx. Enough said. In 1899, the US liberated Cuba from Spain, presumably to gain access to some better public beaches. However, they failed to outlaw bearded people wearing berets on the boardwalk which was our undoing.
Leaping ahead to 1945, January was the month where France was admitted to the United Nations to offset the heartburn of growing American hegemony. France actually nominated Russia the following month but could not convince people that if allowed to join the UN the Russians would bathe more and only invade countries with names that ended in a vowel.
In 1946, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced he was not a God. He was actually a pauper named Ichiro Kawasaki who had agreed to switch places with the real Emperor who was determined to abdicate his royal role to open a sushi bar in Soho.
In 1950, Ho Chi Minh began a campaign to rid the French from Indochina. Earlier in the month, President Eisenhower, suffering from a prostate infection, is misunderstood during a meeting with the coalition French President, Georges Bidault. As Bidault presses Eisenhower to renege on our commitments to Ho Chi Minh (who fought side by side with us against the Japanese) and support reintroducing French colonialism back into Vietnam, Eisenhower confides to an aide that he must go “wee”. Bidualt is overcome with gratitude assuming the American president has just consented, saying “oui”. The rest as they say is history.
In 1959, Fidel Castro leads Cuban revolutionaries to victory over Fulgencio Batista and closes all public beaches and mafia owned casinos. The Kennedy family fumes over unreimbursed hotel deposits and vows revenge. In 1978, The Sex Pistols performed their last concert at Winterland in San Francisco. History as we know it, essentially ended on that January when nihilistic Sid Vicious hung up his angry guitar. A year later he was dead of an overdose.
January has its high points with the Rose Parade in Pasadena ( isn’t California in the Southern hemisphere?) We do have football playoffs, the return of the pro bowling tour and the reconvening of Congress. In between bouts of the flu and a false positive in the stock market known as the “January Effect”, mankind looks ahead to Fortunate February – a month that arrives faithfully with perfumed promises of Valentines and better days ahead.
Personally, I think we should be allowed to sleep through the entire month of January. The Northern hemisphere world be better off and we would really save on our electricity bills. Why not just deploy the old Vonnegut “night canopies”, hibernate and wait until longer days restore our sanity and replenish the chemicals that fire our neurotransmitters. A little dopamine and a little less dopiness could make all the difference in a flat, crowded and discombobulated world.
That’s it. Hold my calls. I’m going to go lie down.