Thursday, December 30, 2021

Human History, Ritual, and the New Year



“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in.  A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” Bill Vaughan 

This Friday is a big day in most of the world. We are saying, “Goodbye” to the year 2021 and saying, “Hello” to 2022.  Here in the US and around the world there will be tons of celebrations, ceremonies, religious rituals, parties, and more as the majority of the world celebrates making a move from one year into the next. The parties and celebrations this year, though, will be very different from the wild revelry that is usually associated with this holiday. COVID is still with us, and the Omicron variant is having a huge effect on celebrations. Many places have put crowd limits, are adopting mask mandates, asking people to provide proof of vaccinations to attend their public events. Some places are doing things virtually rather than in person. Even New York’s famed Times Square celebration, normally one of the world’s biggest, will be vastly scaled back. Proof of vaccination and masks will be required, and attendance will be limited to only 15,00 people at an event that often drew more than 100,000. But even with the changes and adjustments, the world will celebrate the coming of a new year. It is part of human history and human nature to do so.  

   New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are probably the most celebrated public holidays in the world. For most of the world, that means December 31st rolling into January 1st. That is relatively recent, though. For most of human history, New Years did not mean those dates, and in some cultures, it still doesn't.  Seeing December 31st as "2021" and January 1st as "2022" represents the relatively recent triumph of the Western World's sense of time over those of other, more ancient cultures. The calendar with which we are familiar is less than 500 years old, and the idea of starting a new year in January is less than 3000 years old. And it is, when you think of it, strange to be starting a new year in what is for many parts of the world, winter. But the idea celebrating a "new year" is not strange; it has been part of human ritual and tradition for thousands of years.   

  The first recorded celebrations of a “new year’ come from some 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia, now called Iraq. This was the place most historians agree urban living, or "civilization", started. And like most religious and cultural celebrations of long standing, it was tied to what nature was doing at a certain time. Around the spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, Mesopotamians celebrated both the planting (spring) and the harvest (fall) as days of renewal for the earth, and especially for the cities and their surrounding farmlands. “Akitu” was the name of the festival, and historians look to those ancient celebrations as the first recorded instances of regular,culture-wide celebrations of a “new year.” Of course, such celebrations are probably much older; humans did lots of things long before writing and keeping records were invented. But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity large numbers of people simply had to know the when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest; civilizations depend on that. So for thousands of years, it was spring that was viewed as the beginning of the new year. And why not? Flowers are budding, animals are emerging from hibernation or returning to feeding grounds and mating, days were longer, and that cycle of the seasons was noted and revered.  The earth was being “born again,” so observing that time as a “new year” made sense.  

  This "spring-as-new year" idea can easily be seen in the practices of many religions, even today. Some of the most significant holidays-holy days-of many religions are in the spring.  Easter and Passover, for example, are both about renewal and rebirth, actually and/or metaphorically.  Knowing this cycle of the seasons was essential knowledge for us as a species, and humans have long built rituals around our “essential knowledges." So how did we get from the cycle of the seasons being what determines the new year to an almost universal acceptance of January as the new year? What happened? 

   In 46 B.C.E. Julius Caesar, the then leader of the Roman Empire, faced a challenge. Empires control many peoples and many different cultures across many miles. To operate at peak efficiency, they needed an "empire-wide" sense of time, especially for trade, religion, and law.  So Julius invited Sosigenes, a noted astronomer from Egypt, to come to Rome and create a new calendar to unify and regularize the empire's sense of time. This astronomer moved the Roman Empire's calendar from the movable dates of a lunar (moon) based calendar to the more regularly dated solar (sun) based calendar. Doing this moved the start of the calendar year from March (spring) back to January. Further adding to the changes, the Roman Senate decided in 42 B.C.E. to honor the by-then assassinated Caesar by making January 1 a day of tribute to him. This meshed very nicely with Roman religion and symbolism, and it firmly implanted the date as the start of a new year across the Empire. The Romans 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 the other one looking forward. This became the perfect metaphor for the idea of a new year: look back at what had already happened and look forward to what is yet to come.  January had become the start of a "new year" under what became called the Julian calendar. 

   This lasted throughout the Empire for centuries. But as the Roman Empire broke up, when the new year started again became a confusing mélange of dates. The Catholic Church, in an attempt to create a unified Europe, drew up a new calendar in 1582 under the leadership of Pope Gregory the 13th. This calendar, since called the Gregorian Calendar, is the one in use in most of the world today. It kept the new year as starting on January 1st, and as European Christian countries came to dominate so much of the world, the new year's date around the world gradually came to be January 1st. Yes, there are still cultures and calendars which celebrate the new year at different times among and for themselves; the Jewish, Islamic, Chinese, and Baha'i calendars are all prime examples of this. (They celebrate the new year in the fall, summer, later winter, and spring respectively). But the regular, everyday world we all know, and especially the business and political worlds, now go by the Gregorian calendar and recognize the start of a New Year as January 1st. Saturday will be the start of 2022, regardless of how out of step that is with most of human history.               

   As we head into this next new beginning, I wish you all a time of thoughtfulness, hope, strength, fun, hope, good spirits, good company, and good food.  These are worrisome and challenging times-no doubt about it. But we humans have faced such times before, and with faith, unity, support, consistent hard work, and especially through friendship and through community, we have endured and even flourished in some very important ways. That is also an essential trait of being human-we can often respond to hard times in some pretty remarkable ways. So whenever, wherever, and however you  celebrate it, I wish each of you a happy and wonderful start to the new year.  We all have a chance to make new history all over again.  How about that?! Happy New Year!                                                                         

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

December and the Magic of Light



We have all gotten used to the end of Daylight Savings Time by now. We are getting up later without complaint, adjusting to the longer hours of darkness, and are heading into the final month of our year ready to celebrate, even as so much around us has changed in the past two years. We are in December, and despite its longer hours of darkness, December is for most people a time of joyous celebration.  There are so many celebrations from so many religious and ethnic traditions taking place during this month that almost no week in his month is free of holy ritual and observance somewhere in the world. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to and associated with it: Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and specific religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil-based food and dreidel playing. There is Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture and values.  And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, West African Dogon, traditional Persian, or Wiccan, there are celebrations for you this month as well. In fact, what many of us think of as parts of traditional Christmas celebrations- the Christmas tree and the story of the 3 Wise Men- actually have their roots in the pre- Christian Wiccan and Persian traditions. It is December, winter is coming, and we are on the threshold of a very “ritual-rich” time period.

What so many of our winter observances have in common is the prominence of light. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights-light is the common element, metaphor and symbol seen world-wide at this time of the year.  And it makes perfect sense; in much of the world this time of the year means noticeable changes in the amount of daylight and darkness surrounding us, and as humans, we have to account for that. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us, and for most of our history that has meant looking to the sky.  The sun, the moon and the stars have literally and figuratively been our guideposts. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year, and that what we call “the winter solstice” would be here again. So days leading up to or after the solstice became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans.  Ritual, symbol and myth are the ways humans respond to nature, and this became celebrated in many different ways around the planet depending upon geography and culture. 

Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places associate this time of the year with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to days of more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians winter was the time of the Yalda festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, emerged from a rock at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fires. Sol Invictus, the all-powerful Roman sun god, was also celebrated in December with torches and bonfires.  It is a timeless and universal process; we humans knew that we had to celebrate and meet this winter darkness with light.  We had to link our doings and our fates with the universe’s. We had to acknowledge this darkness, so in our rituals fire-light-abounded.                 

New beginnings are also important in most religious traditions. Light is a strong metaphor for that as well. Our language today reflects this. We speak of, “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.”  We look to the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Light as transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in many of our religious rituals and ceremonies at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize a reawakened connection and awareness of African values and traditions for people of African descent. It is a rebirth of a connection. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an enlightened one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. Light was symbolically leading us forward. 

   And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was when we first figured out the solstice and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights on the trees were a fixture.  We decorated the tree, and it took off from there. Now there are lighted houses, yards, shops, malls and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. Many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays. We need the light.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human, and that means we are still connected to our ancestors’ sense of the universe in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various religious rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up at the night sky and taking some time to note, think about, and marvel at what is going on up there. It is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. And its mystery and beauty link our present very directly to our past. That is a wonderful and beautiful thing. 

Do have a safe, warm, happy, and joyous holiday season.  I hope you find it a time full of good spirits, good company and good food.  And of course, light.