TIME OUT: The ancient Maya had the right idea about New Year's.
The five days leading up to New Year's formed a short, separate month in their complicated calendar. These days even had their own name, Uayeb. The rest of the year was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, and Uayeb was a way of accounting for the extra five days that make up the 365-day solar year.
Uayeb was a chunk of time apart from all others, and its days were unlucky and dangerous. One year was ending, another beginning. Time was in transition, and perils could slip in through the cracks. People stayed home when they could during Uayeb. Sometimes they had to perform specific rituals to ward off the dangers all around them, but sometimes the rituals took the form of abstinence: People refrained from washing, from combing and from delousing. They tried, in short, not to be noticed.
All of which strikes a chord with some of our own New Year's practices, though we differ in most ways from the Maya. The Maya thought of time as cyclical, as a great wheel revolving again and again, while we think of time as linear, zinging ever forward like an arrow into the great unknown of the future.
Still, we celebrate Uayeb too, in some of the ways the Maya traditionally did. We have our night of danger, New Year's Eve, when murderous drunks are abroad. Roaming the streets in their cars, they provide us with an exquisite irony: They invite death in on the exact night that we rejoice in a new year of life. (An early Spanish missionary, Bishop Landa, complained of the Mayas' drunkenness during rituals, sniffing, "They made wineskins of themselves.")
And we have a full week of Uayeb in the days between Christmas and New Year's. It's a time apart. It simply doesn't count. It's not a time to go to work or to school. It's not a time to undertake anything that has to do with responsibility. And everybody knows it. "It's the holidays," we say by way of explanation for our sloth.
I once spent my Uayeb in ancient Maya territory, wandering in the ruins of Copan, a city set down in the middle of a Honduran greensward at the end of a tortuous two-day journey from "civilization." On December 31, I was asleep in the darkness near the pyramids, only to be awakened at midnight by the feeble sizzling of firecrackers and by the drunken chanting of the words "Jethro Tull" by one of my fellow travelers, an American conspicuously weighted down both by a huge guitar and by his own dim grasp of what he was seeing on his journey. I didn't go out at all. I was reluctant to let go of Uayeb and to start the New Year.
The first of the year beckons brightly, with empty pages of the calendar to fill, plans to concoct and stories to write. It's exhilarating to get that annual chance to start life all over again. But we also need that week out of time at the end of every December, a week of disconnection and separation and un-responsibility. A week to ponder life and mortality. A week to hide out. So if you'll stop reading, I'll stop writing. Happy Uayeb.
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