The Ink Well Prompt #46: The Real and Imaginary Parts of New Year's Day



“Okay, so if Christmas should be in September, and the calendar is that far off, where the heck is New Year?”

Thus burst out nine-year-old Louisa Dubois Chennault, and on this day, her grandmother Ébène-Cerise Dubois was the one who noticed it.

“It's just too confusing!” Louisa cried when she called her best friend Vertran Stepforth. “First, we have to deal with Covid! Then, school is out so there is summer all year and it is okay for MLK Day to be a summer holiday, and Black History Month can be in the summer too – all that is fine! But if Christmas is really in the fall, which this year is in the summer too, how is New Year supposed to figure out when to come in?”

“You know, Louisa,” equally nine-year-old Vertran said, “I'm not ashamed to say that is too deep for me, so I'm just going to call my two research assistants Andrew and Eleanor Ludlow to see if they can find an answer.”

Louisa and Vertran were two gifted and precocious nine-year-olds with a bunch of precocious friends. Among them were the Ludlow grandchildren, and the eldest of those were 10-year-old Andrew and 11-year-old Eleanor, both of whom were already reading at a late high school/early college level.

Madame Dubois stopped what she was doing because as always, children needed supervision, and gifted, precocious ones needed extra!

“That's a really good question, Louisa,” Eleanor said when she answered the phone. “What does happen to New Year in a situation like what the world is in now? Let Andrew and me study that for a little while, and we'll get back to you.”

Louisa did some math homework while she waited – “because, you know, nothing makes the time go by like precalculus,” she said – and then picked up the phone when Eleanor called back.

“Okay, so, this is like those math questions you do that have all those imaginary and real roots and multiple solutions and stuff, Louisa,” Andrew said, “and we think you can really appreciate it, because with your kind of mind it's all going to make sense.”

“Okay, so, the real answer for the part of the world we live in is that New Year's Day is still going to be January 1 as always, because that's where people in our part of the world have pretty much decided it belongs,” Eleanor said, “at least, for now.”

“And that's where the imaginary parts come in,” said Andrew, “because really, people have been out here declaring New Year's Day all over the place.”

“Really?” Louisa said.

“Yep,” Eleanor said. “The idea that there is only one New Year's Day is totally imaginary.”

“About two billion people in the world – all across Asia – celebrate Lunar New Year, which has to do with when the moon finishes its yearly cycle instead of the sun,” Andrew said. “That day shifts around a bit, too – most of the time in February, sometimes in late January, so, already, we've got all these different New Year's Days.”

“It gets even deeper than that, though,” Eleanor said.

“The Jewish calendar declares New Year's Day some time in September or October – Rosh HaShanah, meaning 'head of the year,'” Andrew said, “but again, that day shifts around too, on a lunar calendar that starts in the fall – September or October.”

“Wow,” Louisa said.

“Islamic New Year is in July or August – on a lunar calendar, days moving around,” Andrew said. “Hindu New Year is in March or April, days moving around … so really, there's New Year's Day's happening in every season of the year: winter, spring, summer, and fall.”

“So, you really can't miss it!” Louisa said.

“Yeah, but that's not even the deep part,” Eleanor said. “This is the deep part: there's something called the fiscal year that big companies use, and then there's the school year, which really has us all kinds of messed up. The new school year is supposed to start in August or September, and what was going on there was that people were in the fields working and getting the crops set up, and school was supposed to start when all that was calmed down. It's really kind of a farmer-based thing: you plant your stuff in May and then work all summer to make sure it's okay, then go to school in September when all that's left is harvest and the fields are quiet again until May, or something like that.”

“And then the big companies decided that for whatever reason, they didn't want to use the calendar year, but wanted their new year to be July 1 – so, corporations get to declare New Year's Day as July 1!” Andrew said.

“So, that's where we get all the real parts and the imaginary parts about New Year, Louisa,” Eleanor said. "The real part is that it will really stay on the calendar on January 1 for the English-speaking world, but the idea that it's the only New Year's Day is really imaginary.”

“Right, like the real parts and imaginary number parts in math,” Louisa said, “now that we can see all the roots and stuff.”

“Right, so don't even worry about it,” Andrew said. “We can't miss New Year – it's practically everywhere, all the time.”

After thanking her two friends, Louisa noticed her grandmother sitting near her, with open arms, and so climbed up into her lap.

“What does it all mean, Maman?” she said.

“It means you get to celebrate every day of being alive, because every piece of it is a piece of a new year, for you,” Madame Dubois said gently.

Louisa smiled.

“Oh, well, since everybody is doing the imaginary thing, and it's New Year's somewhere, Happy New Year, Maman. We can just do a new one every day.”

“Well,” said Madame Dubois, “why not! Bonne annèe – Happy New Year!”

Louisa, now satisfied, curled up and went to sleep.

Monsieur Dubois chuckled when he walked in.

“Sometimes, what these little ones really need is just a nap!” he purred.

Oui oui, Madame Dubois purred softly. “Fais do do – go to sleep, Louisa!”

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