Happy New Year!
On second thoughts, why? In half the world January 1 is not the day on which a new year starts. India’s kaleidoscopic culture knows New Year’s Day by many names—Yugadi in Karnataka, Ugadi in Telugu areas, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Cheti Chand in Sindhi regions, Sajibu Nongma Panba in Manipur. But they are all celebrated on the same day, the first day of Chaitra which is the first month of the year which is around April. In China it is between January end and February end and the celebration is so elaborate that everything shuts down for seven days.
January 1 became New Year’s Day basically as a Western thing and a Christian thing. Those were the twin influences that shaped the world’s ways at one stage in history. Unbeknown to them, however, the festivities of the occasion were throwing open new opportunities for commerce and merchandise. With that, the genius of marketing took over. The occasion and the celebrations now took on a veneer of universalism, suggesting the involvement of all peoples of all cultures. Like Christmas and Diwali, the original significance of the occasion mattered less than the profitability potential of the celebrations.
Not that the West had it easy when it was setting the pattern. Confusion and arbitrariness marked some of the early attempts at calendar-making. A Roman calendar had only 10 months, March 1 being the start of the year. Under the Popes, Christmas Day, December 25, was made the first day of the year. Then Easter, March 25, was given the honour. Finally, in 1582, the Gregorian calendar came into vogue with January 1 restored to its earlier glory.
The power of the church and the might of colonial rulers ensured that what they approved as New Year’s Day was so approved by the world as well. But the management of the system was quickly taken over by wizards with the talent to merchandise God himself. There is a saying in the West that New Year is just a holiday created by calendar companies that wanted people to buy new calendars.
One can be philosophical of course and ask why the end of one year and start of another should be an occasion for fireworks and gift exchanges and dancing and drinking. Indeed, what is there to celebrate when every year things get worse; when Arctic ice melts dangerously, forests and rivers die, contamination of food becomes an every day crime openly practised, human cruelties reach inhuman levels.
Legitimate issues that concern all of us. But the world is run, not by philosophers, but by marketeers. Valentine’s Day, a commercially created idea for young people, rings up sales of $20 billion in the US alone. The size of the gift industry covering Christmas and New Year alone should be mind-boggling.
The marketing industry is peopled by experts specially blessed by the Creator. There is nothing they cannot sell. There’s no limit to their creativity. Santa Claus, sanctified by Christmas, was invented by marketing wizards to popularise Coca Cola. Only once did the Cola people fail to achieve their target, and that apocryphally.
One day Coca Cola’s advertising chief called on the Pope and said, “Your Holiness, we can offer you 5 million a month if you will change the line in the Lord’s Prayer from ‘give us this day our daily bread’ to ‘give us this day our daily Coke...’
After a moment’s pause, the Holy Father replied: “We cannot do that, my son.”
A few month’s later, the company’s President came and said, “Your Holiness, we can offer you 50 million a month if you would change ‘our daily bread’ to ‘our daily Coke’.”
The Pope was not amenable. On his way out, the President of the Cola company was heard asking his aides: “I wonder how much the bread people gave him.” In a world where nothing has value and everything has a price, festive occasions can only be seen as marketing-backed commercial celebrations. This has to be accepted as a fact of life because marketing controls almost all aspect of our lives. The only way to bring an element of sanity to it is to assert our individual worth and bend to the spirit of G K Chesterton’s words:
“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes.”