In a few days, all over the world, people will be celebrating the start of the new year. In this post, I will be sharing thoughts for the new year. I will explain rituals from a sociological perspective, apply the insights to New Year’s celebrations, and show how it applies to us, both personally and socially, while addressing religion and power structures in that application.
I will start by saying that, technically, January 1 is just another day, and labeling it as the start of the year is arbitrary. (In fact, other calendars have their New Years on different days: the Jewish New Year [Rosh Hashanah] is in the early fall, the lunar Year in East Asian calendars is on the second new moon after the winter solstice, the Iranian, Kurdish, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i New Year occurs on the vernal equinox, and the Muslim New Year goes back through all the seasons*.) However, the tendency to designate such dates fulfills sociological functions.
Originally, the calendar helped farmers to know when to plant their crops. Nowadays, it allows us to determine our ages, make appointments, and remember important events. This brings us to another function: to set aside dates for specific purposes, popularly called “holidays”. In sociology, a school of thought called “symbolic interactionism” focuses on symbols and rituals, and how people in a society or social group interact to give meaning to said symbols and rituals. In our discussion, holidays are an example of dates assigned meaning. There is another school of thought called structural functionalism, which discusses how different parts of society work together to contribute to the functioning of the society and meeting the needs of the society’s members. Holidays function to encourage solidarity, reinforce social values, allow an outlet for various sentiments, and remember historical events important for the identity of the social group.
These holidays are some of the few remaining rituals in the modern world. The importance of rituals is discussed by The School of Life in their video “HISTORY OF IDEAS — Ritual”. At the 8:21-8:45 mark, the speaker says, “Even in the hands of religions rituals have been guardians of important states of mind that would otherwise be crushed or neglected. A book of poetry is in the end a hushed object in a noisy world, whereas a ritual protects emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but without a degree of fabrication and structure we might be too distracted and undisciplined to take time for.” Around the 12:20 mark, the speaker observes that what we once did in ritual we now do privately, but that our gestures are more vulnerable to half-heartedness and forgetfulness, and suggests that rituals remain useful in our journey to be sane and kind.
So, what does this mean for New Year’s Day? Well, internationally, January 1 has been designated the start of a new year, and this is tied to a desire to start over, to change course, an idea that religion appeals to as well. One expression of this is making resolutions. Through these, we express a desire to do things differently, to change course. This desire is best expressed in the Ecuadorian tradition of Año Viejo (lierally, “old year”), the custom on New Year’s Eve of burning effigies made of old clothes and newspaper that symbolize the anger, regrets, failures, sins, disappointments, mistakes, etc., of the past year and allow for the hope and resolutions of the coming one. This symbolizes most dramatically the general desire to leave behind the old pain and to look forward with hope and start anew.
This is expressed in a number of religions; in this post, I will discuss it from Jewish and Christian perspectives. (My apologies to readers who practice other religions; I am not knowledgeable enough. Please feel free to leave a comment below to add your thoughts.) Years back I listened to a Jewish podcast called Spiritual Truths in an Outrageous World, hosted by David Sacks. In one episode (I can’t remember which one), Sacks told the story of an encounter between a Jew and a Christian on an airplane, and the subject turned to Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. The Jew explained that the Hebrew is better translated as “With a beginning…”, meaning you can always have a new beginning. (Years later, this conversation and idea saved the Christian from suicide.)
Christianity mentions that a Christian becomes “a new creature in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17), and that the old man is dead, and we are new in Christ (Col. 3). On the one hand, there is the notion of having died to the elemental spirits of the world (Col. 2:20), but on the other, to “put to death” that which belongs to the old nature (Col. 3:5). These are linked in 2 Pet. 1:5 to add “excellence” (that is, character development) to our “faith”.
Now, I realize that I likely have readers who aren’t Christian. I think these passages in general discuss the idea of looking forward, of being a better human being, and that is what I want to convey. This is an expression of general human sentiments, and expressed in resolutions.
Now, to the social aspects, and the dark side of New Year’s Day. A major reason January 1 is the international New Year is due to the dominance of European and European-descended societies since 1492. This legacy includes vices such as imperialism and colonialism, which has resulted in a majority of core nations’ being Western and to such societies being advantaged over others (though there is change with the rise of Asian nations). While many of us in the West would like to go forward and forget this, we must reckon with this. We may want to deal with history as a multihyphenated line “where the past ended at some definite point and the present started from scratch, and there is nothing but rupture in between” (Şafak, p. 165). A perhaps more accurate view of history would be that of a cycle with “the past incarnated in the present and [where] the present birthed the future” (ibid). In these quotes, Şafak was comparing Turkish and Armenian views respectively in reference to the Armenian Genocide.
However, this is applicable to Western society; one example of this applicability is in American race relations. Many white Americans have a multihyphenated line view of history, in which one line ended in 1865 with the abolition of slavery and another in the 1960’s with the abolition of segregation, and even the assumption that racism is dead in USA. With this mindset, many whites think that black people need to just get over slavery, as it ended 150 years ago.
However, a cycle view is more common among African-Americans. From their viewpoint, though slavery was abolished in 1865, the effects continue to this day, and black people continue to face disadvantages in society. In short, we are haunted by the ghost of slavery. The challege issued is what future are we going to birth, and to fight for a future of greater equality for everyone.
This concept is reflected in the Bible, when it records the praise of the living creatures, “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come” (Rev. 4:8). I heard from a rabbi (I don’t remember which one) that God’s Holiest Name (that Jews don’t even pronounce) is a combination of the past, present, and future tenses of the Hebrew word for the verb “to be”. This shows, he explained, God’s involvement in our past, present, and future. This reflects how history affects us, and the need for awareness of how our present actions affect the future.
This all also applies to our personal lives. While we often want to forget our pasts, what we have been through affects our present lives. Sometimes we have trauma from our pasts. This helps us to be aware of where we are now, and help us to make decisions that will birth a good future. So, as we go into the next year, to go forward in hope, we may have to confront our past, not only the previous year but sometimes things from years back. (That may mean therapy or counseling.) In my case, I wonder how my experiences can be used to help others (which is one reason I started this blog), and ask about my hopes and wishes, and how I can benefit others. Where am i going?
That is the question for us all? Where are we going this year? What kind of life do we want? What can we do? I think the best thing is to take it one day at a time, as Jesus prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt. 6:11, KJV). Each day take little steps, as little things add up.
To sum up, rituals are started as people ascribe meaning to symbols and objects through their interactions with each other. These symbols, such as dates, serve to communicate values, remember significant events, attend to important states of mind, and allow for expressions of emotions. In particular, New Year’s Day serves to provide a chance for people to pause, take stock of their lives, think of where they are going, and start anew, which is an idea expressed in religion as well. However, in our desire to leave the old behind and to start anew, we need to remember that the past continues to have an impact today, and the present influences the future.
Towards the end of the movie Rudolf’s Shiny New Year, as Father Time puts a crown on the head of the baby New Year, he proclaims the year 19-Wonderful. So, my wish is that for you, dear readers, the next year may be the year 20-Wonderful! May you all have a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!
Happy New year, everyone!
*Note: all seasons refer to the seasons on the Northern hemisphere.
All scripture quotatiins, unless otherwise noted are from the New English Translation (NET).
Scriptures marked KJV are from the King James Version.
Şafak, Elif. 2007. The Bastard of Istanbul. Penguin Books.