Saturday, January 16, 2021

As the World Turns: What is a New Year Anyway?



As The World Turns.

    This week will mark the end of 2020 and the birth of new year. This will be a turning of the calendar page that most of us will be applauding. This has been a year of unprecedented challenge and change for the United States, most notably from the COVID pandemic and from all of the subterranean problems in our culture the pandemic laid bare. From the storms and wildfires in throughout the year, to the actions against racial and social injustices that have been a part of this country since before it was a country; to the problems of the US health care system, to weaknesses in our food supply system and more, the pandemic revealed more about our culture than many of us realized or were willing to see. It has been a hard year of revelations, adjustments, and change that we are still struggling to learn how to face. And we are not alone. This is a global phenomenon, and the whole world has been reminded that we are truly interconnected, as much as we might like to pretend we aren’t.

  As a result of COVID, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day worldwide will look very different this year. In most years the whole world would now be gearing up for huge celebrations, ceremonies, religious observances, huge parades and parties and sporting events to take note of moving from one year into the next.  In fact, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are the most widely celebrated public holidays in the world. We do not know exactly the ways different countries and cultures will observe this passage of time this year, as the pandemic has thrown everything up in the air. But we do know that for most of the world, it will still mean the dates of December 31st and January 1st.  That is the “New Year.” But if we look at most of human history, a “new year’ did not mean those dates at all. The idea of a new year starting in the midst of winter is really a relatively new idea across most of the globe.

    New years have been celebrated for thousands of years. The first recorded celebrations come from some 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq; the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes,     when days and  nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the work of planting and of harvesting as grand days of renewal for the cities and their surrounding areas.  There were festivals that involved the gods-both as prayers hoping for a good year of planting and growth, and as a, “Thank you” for a good harvest. “Akitu” was the name for the spring festival, and historians look to those celebrations as the first recorded instances of what we would call a “new year.”  Of course, such celebrations are really much older-things were happening long before humans invented writing and keeping records. 

As farming and agriculture gradually became mainstays of human activity people came to know when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest, and they invoked the powers of the gods in that quest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons was essential to the survival of the culture. So that meant that for thousands of years spring was the beginning of a new year.  It is easy to see why. The earth was being 'born again” in very real and obvious ways. Flowers and plants were re-appearing. Animals were  emerging from hibernation and/or returning to feeding grounds and mating. The wild grasses were back. There was obviously more light as the days were getting longer. It seemed as if the world was truly reborn. This cycle of the seasons was noted and revered. It was at the heart of most cultures, and the start of came to mean “new year.” This can still be seen in many religious practices today. Many religions have some of their most significant holidays-holy days-in the spring and fall.  Easter and Passover, for example are literally all about renewal and rebirth. And there are dozen of other cultural and religious observances that take place in the spring around the world. Clearly, the coming of spring signified important things to most peoples. So what happened? How did we get from the cycle of the seasons determining the new year to an almost universal acceptance of January 1 as the “new year”?                                                   

   In 46 B.C.E. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar faced a challenge. Empires control many peoples and many cultures, and they need an empire-wide sense of time for efficiency in trade, law, cultural unity, and more. Empires depend on order and regularity, so Julius invited a noted astronomer from Egypt to come to Rome and create a solar calendar. The ideas was to move the Roman Empire's sense of time from the movable dates of a lunar (moon) based calendar to a regularly dated solar (sun) based one. This moved the new year's from March (spring) back to January. In 42 B.C.E. The Roman Senate decided to honor the by then assassinated leader by making January 1st his day, both as a tribute to him and to honor his readjustment of the calendar. This meshed very nicely with Roman religion-they already had a god of gates and beginnings named Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Janus was two headed with one head looking backward and one looking forward. This was a perfect metaphor for a new year-look back at what happened and look forward to what is to come. So January became the start of a new year. This lasted throughout the Empire, but as the Roman Empire broke up, the new year again became a melange of dates. The Catholic Church, in its attempt to unify Europe, then drew up a new calendar in 1582 under the leadership of Pope Gregory the 13th. This calendar, the Gregorian, is the one in use in most of the world today, and it made the new year's date January 1 throughout Europe. Of course there were still cultures and calendars which celebrated the new year at different times, but the colonization and empire building of Europe eventually spread their calendar around the world. The business and political world in every country now operate on the Georgian calendar and recognize the New Year as January 1st.                                    

   The dates of the new year changed, but the traditions associated with it still reflect much of the original ideas of what a new year is. Originally new year’s celebrations were about hope and pledges of commitment-if we pray and try to live in a way that honors the gods, then we can have a good planting and hunting season, a good growing season and a good harvest. How we live-what we did and do- will influence what will happen. That fits with the Roman idea of January. Janus looks in two directions- backward and forward. That is a good metaphor for this occasion. We look back at what we did in the previous year, evaluate it, and resolve-make resolutions- to do better in the coming year, hoping for a better outcome. And being human, we do this with rituals that symbolize and give substance to those aspirations and beliefs. We eat foods that represent hopes for long lives, prosperity, good fortune, good health and more. Circle cakes, noodles, special dumplings, rice and black-eyed peas, certain fruits and more have all been part of traditional New Years' feasts from various cultures symbolizing hopes for a better next year. And being human, this cannot be a solo enterprise. New beginnings call for humans to be reverent and reflective and to look at our lives against a larger backdrop; family and community matter. Ritual brings us together, allowing us to see and celebrate our joint humanity and commitment to and need of each other.  

    For most of our rituals humans need to be together in some form that recognizes that we often meet the world best when we are with others and working together. The events of this year clearly challenge that. Heading into 2021 will be very different, The actual “groupness”of so much human ritual is not happening this year, and we shall have to accept, adjust and adapt to that, just as have had to do for most of this year. I hope each of you can find some way of observing this time than can honor the meaning of this time. Even though it will be very different. I hope you are all able to do that. And I wish each of you a time of thoughtfulness, gratitude, good company in some safe form, and good food to help you connect with the original idea of this observance.

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