When I exchanged “Happy New Year” greetings with someone yesterday, I found myself thinking “What a relief that I can use a holiday salutation which is not potentially offensive because it implicitly endorses my religion—Christianity. Unlike “Merry Christmas,” a phrase containing the messianic title of the One whose birth we celebrate, “Happy New Year” is free from any such reference. But then, as I reflected, it occurred to me that even this phrase potentially endorses Christianity—at least if we refer to the new year as 2009. For what does that number signify but the (approximate) number of years that have passed since Jesus Christ was born. It is, after all, A.D. (Anno Domini—“Year of our Lord”) 2009. So now I’m wondering when someone will begin a serious public campaign to change the current dating system because it tacitly honors Jesus as the chronological reference point of world history.
Of course, this has already been addressed in scholarly circles by the “Common Era” system, in which the abbreviations “B.C.” and “A.D.” are supplanted, respectively, by “B.C.E.” (“Before the Common Era”) and “C.E.” (“Common Era”). However, this change is merely nominal, as the dates used are the same as ever, the pivotal reference point still being the birth of one Jesus of Nazareth. So is there a different historical event which would be a more broadly acceptable alternative? In the 1790s, supposedly, there was a movement in France to make the French Revolution the key chronological marker. Obviously, that never caught on. Perhaps something like Aldous Huxley’s fictional suggestion of “A.F.” (“After Ford”) would be more appropriate. In Brave New World the “Ford” dating system made pivotal the year (A.D.) 1908, when the first Model-T was made. Huxley rightly saw how modern technology would change the world (and how we think about the world). But, with the benefit of hindsight (and some reasonable foresight), we might settle on the computer as a more impactful technology. Perhaps we could dub 1936 as the pivotal year (marking the introduction of the Z1 Computer, a primitive machine useful for basic calculations). This would have the natural appeal of allowing for continued use of “B.C.” (“Before Computers”) and implementation of “C.E.” (“Computer Era”), which would represent a sort of compromise between the Christian and Common Era dating systems, at least ostensibly. That would make this year 73 C.E., and it would also mean that Jesus himself was born in the year 1936 B.C. (or, adjusted for historical precision, perhaps something like 1939 B.C.).
Somehow I don’t think this proposal holds much promise for catching on either. On the whole, human civilization is just too thoroughly committed to the Christian dating system. As a Christian, of course, this is okay by me, since I think it makes sense to regard God’s incarnational entrance into human history as the central event. But should non-Christians be bothered by this? Should they take offense by expressions such as “Happy 2009” as some are by expressions like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter”? If so, then perhaps we should qualify our “Happy New Year” salutation somehow. How about this: “Happy New Year, Whatever the Word ‘Year’ Might Mean to You.” Ah, now doesn’t that have a pleasant, inclusive ring to it? Hmm… Lets see if it catches on.