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There are plenty of people who share that perspective other than parents and those of us with more direct connections to education circles. And, it turns out, adopting a perspective of the fall as a chance to change more than just your wardrobe may even have psychological benefits.
Let’s get this out of way: There isn’t one answer to the question of when a new year “officially” begins. It can depend on the hemisphere you live in, the culture in which you were reared, and the religious or spiritual practices you follow. Marking the new year is a civil occasion, not a celestial one, explained the science journalist and educator Deborah Byrd, editor in chief of EarthSky.org. “There is no natural event that indicates the start of a new year,” Byrd told me.
The modern Western tradition of starting the year on January 1 comes from the ancient Romans’ feast of two-faced Janus—the god of doorways, beginnings, and transitions, after whom the month of January is named. One of his faces looked back at the past, while the other focused on what was to come. This year the Autumnal Equinox—when day and night are of equal length in both hemispheres—occurs on September 22. That’s often called the first day of fall but, again, as Byrd explained, that’s a civil tradition.
The start of fall, a harbinger of colder winter months, might seem like an odd time for a New Year’s celebration. For people with seasonal affect disorder, it can mark the start of a period of struggling against depression and sadness. In an essay, Byrd encouraged readers to embrace the emotional nature of autumn, offering advice that could also be useful to students or educators facing a rockier-than-usual start to the school year:
“Stand facing west, considered the direction of autumn in ancient Chinese philosophy. Consider your dreams and visions, and the path on which you’re moving forward through your life … … Find the courage to face what’s ahead.”
If this advice sounds too touchy-feely, consider the science that backs it up. Indeed, Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, says there are also physiological reasons why the fall might feel like a new year.
The transition from summer to fall can be a dramatic one—both in terms of our physical environments and how we spend our time, Batcho said. That makes it a logical point to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re heading, something not enough people actually do, she added. “We need temporal markers to keep track of time, and having New Year’s Day—just one chance to start over—doesn’t cut it,” she said. “I think we need more than that.”
Even with the advent of technology that keeps the most fortunate of us cool in the summer and warm in the winter, certain environmental cues—such as leaves turning color or the crispness of the morning air—remind us that the surrounding environment is changing. Biological and emotional responses follow, Batcho said. That can include memories of how the weather always started to change when it was time to return to school after summer break. The awareness might be more intense for people in regions of the country with more distinct seasons than for people who don’t witness a lot of weather change. At the same time, she said, “classic conditioning” means there are traditional events that we respond to—such as seeing fleets of big yellow school buses returning to the roadways or a flood of “first day” photos shared on social media. All of that can trigger emotions because it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect as the season turns, Batcho said.