The time is near: December 21st marks the end of the Mayan calendar. It may also mark the end of the world as we know it, the end of an era and the start of a new one, or the end of absolutely nothing at all, depending on who you ask. What does the Mayan calendar actually say, and where does the doomsday connotation come from?

The Mayan calendar itself uses a similar system to many South American cultures; the Mayans credit their own particular brand of timekeeping to the ancient deity Itzamma. Instead of weeks, months, and years, the Mayan calendar consists of multiple cycles of varying lengths that repeat themselves, like cogs and wheels that spin inside the greater machine of time. The largest wheel in the calendar tracks the passage of time as a whole, from the dawn of the Maya’s creation story. Smaller rotations tracked lunar cycles, the progress of Venus, a 260-day “year”, and even a small nine-day cycle that may represent something like the Mayan week.

Much of the December 21st excitement comes from the idea that the largest cycle, which never really stops, will roll over into a new b’ak’tun (or era) in 2012. In this light, the whole thing is lacking the dark menace that Hollywood has given it over the years. The determined doomsday crowd get most of their backing from a carving in Tortuguero, Mexico, which was apparently made by a Mayan ruler who prophesied that the cycle of the world he lived in would end in 2012. This ruler had just been defeated in battle, and while the passage does have a certain fatalistic feel to it, most scholars believe that he was simply referencing the common Mayan conception of time as a big cycle that repeats itself, and which would turn around all over again in 2012.

The interesting thing is that in this Mayan conception of time, “the end of the world” is something of a foreign concept. What does an end mean, if every ending is merely the start of a new beginning? We catch ourselves using similar concepts when we say, “History repeats itself” and even, “What goes around comes around!” How much of that do we really mean? We may be more Mayan than we realized. The Mayan calendar has reached its own reset, just as the Western one did in 2000, and we as humans are once again reminded that time is more than the seconds and minutes that tick by in our time pieces. The Mayan calendar suggests a more organic view of time, and also a less arbitrary one.

Despite its infamy, the reset of the Mayan calendar is not being met with trepidation everywhere. Central and South American countries are seeing their highest December tourist rates in decades. Just as many people decided that the clock turn-over from 1999 to 2000 was a good excuse to throw a party, it has been announced that Mexico,  El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala will all be holding country-wide celebrations on December 21st this year. It’s comforting to know that some human responses are apparently universal.

Regardless of how convincing you find the whole doomsday argument, the change in the Mayan calendar this year is an important milestone. It reminds us that history is important, and that we are beholden to its definitions in more ways than we may want to admit. It gives us an excuse not just to throw a party, but also to reconsider what is important to us and how we want to spend the time we do have. If history shows us anything, it is that humans rarely appreciate the time they have, until it’s spent.

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