Most of us, I assume, celebrate January 1st as New Year’s Day. Unless of course you are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, or one of a number of other religions, cultures, or countries. For some of these, the new year begins on dates that seem random on the Gregorian calendar, but are tied to the lunar cycle, something easily observed and recorded by ancient civilizations. A great many of these other new year dates are in the late winter to early spring. Notable exceptions are the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, a fall celebration commemorating the seven days of creation in the fall and those celebrated on or near Diwali, the Hindu ancient festival of lights, also in the fall.
Nearly all cultures and religions have some sort of New Year celebration or significance. What is common, then, among these widely diverse groups?
January 1st Through April New Year’s
The longest day for darkness (in the Northern Hemisphere) of the year is the winter solstice, and it occurs between December 20th and 23rd in the Gregorian calendar. In 2014, it was on December 21st, apparantly the longest in the history of the earth: the rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down, so it would take longer this year to make a revolution than in any previous recorded year. In the era before humans had lights, the cold and the long darkness of those days must have been not just scary, but life threatening. Gathering edible food from plants and animals was limited and warding off cold could prove fatal.
It is no wonder, then, that getting through that precarious season was a time to celebrate. The daylight hours slowly began to lengthen, temperatures warmed, and as spring approached, plants returned to life and animals got ready to have their young, and the earth provided what must have seemed like unbounded abundance. But this is a Northern Hemisphere centric view, as just the opposite was happening south of the equator.
Autumnal New Year’s
The thankfulness for surviving and flourishing is equally apparent in the fall celebrations. The summer months meant a time to cultivate crops, raise livestock, gather wild berries and hunt game. Before the winter set in, the harvest and the storehouse it provided for the upcoming months of lean was indeed a time to give thanks, feel blessed, and celebrate with festivals, food, and gather family and friends to share in the bounty. Other reasons are just thankfulness for life and happiness, perhaps surviving to live another year.
Hope for the New Year
In addition to the timing of celebrations of New Year’s is the hope and often deep belief that the next year will bring new health, wealth and happiness in ways the year ending did not. Chinese New Year celebrations feature red as a predominate color. Legend has it that red paper frightened away an evil spirit who came yearly to eat villagers and especially children, and that firecrackers were an added deterrent. Red envelopes are now passed to family and friends as New Year’s presents. Dragon dances and firecrackers scare away other evil spirits, and red has become the color of good luck.
Spirits dominate western culture New Year’s celebration as well. Noticeably, champagne. This relatively expensive, effervescent bubbly drink has become the poster child for Midnight January 1st, along with the New Year’s kiss. Lucky indeed is the person who gets both a glass of good champagne and a good kiss to savor with it. Other spirits can help with the great kiss, like bourbon, Scotch, gin, vodka, and rye. The next morning, almost no one wants to hear firecrackers to make these spirits go away; maybe tomato juice and strong coffee would be better.
What I Have Pondered this Holiday Season
We take so much for granted, particularly when it comes to our holidays. What our childhood memories of them are is likely to be the view we assume is, was and will always be. That traditions, meanings, and celebrations will change over time, as well as place, is not something many of us give much thought to. Christmas, for example, has become an almost world wide celebration. Not, as I believe, because more people wish to celebrate the birth of Christ, but because Christmas has become a universal business opportunity. Yes,there is all that warm and fuzzy spirit of the season, and that helps – people like to get in on the fun and trapping of the day – but overall it is mostly a secular celebration now instead of a predominately religious one. No doubt some readers will find this offensive, but I mean it only to be objective.
Shift away from North America and Western Europe and the view of the holiday season is going to go through a shift in the spectrum of celebrations and attitudes as well, from closely aligned to non-existent. In the same way, New Year’s celebrations change (by date and more) moving outside our Northern Hemisphere and dominant cultures and religions to the rest of the world.
Shift in time is equally startling. Go back a little more than a century to a wold of candles and fires as our only sources of light and heat, where there were no Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Macy’s parades, Black Friday or bowl games. Our holiday season is a fairly modern invention. But who doesn’t associate it with sleigh rides, Coke’s jolly St. Nick face, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and I’ll Have a Blue Christmas?
What I have learned is that there are many ways to celebrate life, family, creation, and happiness. Our traditions are just one group of many more.
So may this New Year, from a Gregorian pointy of view, bring you the health, happiness and prosperity that you wish for.
Happy New Year!