A New Year
by Glenn Washburn
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“Ring out the old…Ring in the new!” We are all familiar with this famous line about New Year; a holiday celebrating the beginning of a new year. "Happy New Year!" is a greeting that quickly takes the place of “Merry Christmas” (or more increasingly and sadly, “Happy Holidays”) for at least the first couple of weeks as a new year gets under way. In our culture, the commercial manipulation of the Christmas season is well documented. The day after Thanksgiving known as “black Friday” (when stores try to change the color of the ink in their profit ledgers from red to black) used to be the traditional secular launch of the Christmas season; but it seems that with each passing year Christmas commercials start showing up in the media earlier and earlier. And holiday decorations begin appearing on city streets and in store windows as early as Halloween. However, with the dawn of December 26th Christmas is quickly forgotten (except the long lines at the department store return counter and “after holiday” sales designed to unload Christmas overstock). Suddenly, all eyes are on New Year’s Eve with not even a moment to pause and remember the Holy Day that has just occurred. And try finding a Christmas movie or any mention of Christmas on any media outlet after the 25th…trust me, you won’t! How can a celebration that so many look forward to with such anticipation be so easily displaced by a day that is hardly more than a work holiday with no seemingly religious significance or for that matter, no particular celebratory nature (that is, if you take alcohol out of the equation). Perhaps a brief look at the history of New Year will shed some light on the matter.
The celebration of the New Year was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. In the years around 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon (actually the first visible crescent) after the Vernal Equinox (first day of spring). The beginning of spring is a logical time to start a new year. After all, it is the season of rebirth, of planting new crops, and of blossoming. January 1, on the other hand, has no astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary. The Babylonian new year celebration lasted for eleven days. Each day had its own particular mode of celebration, but it is safe to say that modern New Year's Eve festivities pale in comparison. The Romans continued to observe the New Year in late March, but their calendar was tampered with by various emperors so that the calendar became out of synchronization with the sun. In order to set the calendar right, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be the start of the New Year. But the tampering continued until Julius Caesar, in 46 BC, established what has become known as the Julian calendar. It again established January 1 as the New Year.
Other traditions of the season include the making of New Year's resolutions. That tradition also dates back to the early Babylonians. Popular modern resolutions might include the promise to lose weight or quit smoking. The early Babylonian's most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. The tradition of using a baby to signify the new year was begun in Greece around 600 BC. It was their tradition at that time to celebrate their god of wine, Dionysus, by parading a baby in a basket, representing the annual rebirth of that god as the spirit of fertility. Early Egyptians also used a baby as a symbol of rebirth. The use of an image of a baby with a New Years banner as a symbolic representation of the new year was brought to early America by the Germans. They had used the effigy since the fourteenth century. Although the early Christians denounced the practice as pagan, the popularity of the baby as a symbol of rebirth forced the Church to reevaluate its position. The Church finally allowed its members to celebrate the New Year with a baby, which was to symbolize the birth of the baby Jesus.
Although in the first centuries AD the Romans continued celebrating the New Year, the early Catholic Church condemned the festivities as paganism. But as Christianity became more widespread, the early church began having its own religious observances concurrently with many of the pagan celebrations, and New Year's Day was no different. New Years is still observed as the Feast of Christ's Circumcision by some denominations. During the “Middle Ages”, the Church remained opposed to celebrating New Years. January 1 has been celebrated as a holiday by Western nations for only about the past 400 years.
One of the most venerable New Years traditions is the champaign toast at midnight to ring in the New Year. Toasting can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who would pour wine from a common pitcher. The host would drink first, to assure his guests that the wine was not poisoned. Poisoning the wine was a fairly common practice in ancient times, designed to do away with one's enemies. In those days the wine was not as refined as it is today so a square of burned bread (toast) would be floated in the wine bowl and then eaten by the last person to drink. The bread was put there to absorb the extra acidity of the wine in order to make it more palatable. Eventually, the act of drinking in unison came to be called a toast, from the act of "toasting" or putting toast into the wine.
Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year's Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man. Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes "coming full circle," completing a year's cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year's Day will bring good fortune. Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes such as lentils have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another "good luck" vegetable that is consumed on New Year's Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also seen as a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency.
This is the “holiday” that dethrones Christmas each year; a symbolic day of new beginning that is steeped in pagan ritual, superstition, and alcohol consumption; most of which has survived to this day (perhaps it is not light but darkness that has been revealed here.) Even for many of us Christian’s, New Year’s Day is marked as a beginning and Christmas as an ending. Most people breathe a sigh of relief when the Christmas season is over; thankful that they “got through” the shopping, decorating, food preparation and school vacation. Children may register disappointment as we pack away the decorations, plop the Christmas tree by the curb, and strap their school bag back on; but we are more than ready to move on and begin a new year. However, Christmas is not something to be “gotten through”. It is something to be entered into with wonder and joy. I may have some startling news for you; but as a Christian your year has already begun and has been going for a while now. The church year traditionally begins with Advent; but actually the real beginning is with the Annunciation. The Annunciation, also referred to as the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary or Annunciation of the Lord, is the celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary, that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus the Son of God. Gabriel told Mary to name her son Jesus, meaning "Saviour". Many Christians observe this event with the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, nine full months before Christmas. The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the Church calendar. It celebrates the actual Incarnation of Our Savior the Word made flesh in the womb of His mother, Mary.
Now that we’ve established that the year has already begun, it is important to address the false idea that the Christmas season marks a kind of “ending.” There is much yet to come. There is the public naming and circumcision of Jesus eight days after His birth on January 1st, followed by the adoration of the Magi also known as Epiphany on January 6th , followed by His presentation in the temple forty days after His birth which is also called Candlemas and is celebrated on February 2nd. It does not matter what your denomination; a close examination of the scriptures offers you enough evidence to begin your celebration of Jesus’ birth on March 25th and end it on February 2nd; almost one full year. And contained within that time frame is the opportunity to prepare, observe and remember…to pray, celebrate and worship.
Perhaps it is time to take a page from the Jewish observation and celebration of Shabbat. Most of us are familiar with the Jewish Friday sunset to Saturday sunset observance of God’s prescribed day of rest. Although we Christian’s have designated Sundays as “The Lord’s Day” and our day of rest; very little resting goes on for most of us. There is the worship service, of course, and some of us will even add on a little time for Sunday school; but how much more do we actually give to God and rest? The truth is most of us use the rest of the day for fix-up’s around the house, mowing the grass, painting, or watching football. For the observant Jewish man or woman there are certain restrictions and clear obligations to God that rule those twenty-four hours. And it goes beyond even this; because Shabbat is the centerpiece of a seven day affair. In its entirety, there are three days of preparation, one day of observance (Shabbat), three days of remembrance, and then back to preparation; helping the people to remember that it is not one day that belongs to God but all days.
Christmas, likewise, needs to be more than one day. And even more than the Advent season some of us include. I’m certainly not advocating for more “feast” days or reasons to shop or decorate. I am merely suggesting we expand our approach and devotion to Christmas to more closely resemble the Jewish devotion to Shabbat; to give due time to preparation and remembrance, to confession and thankfulness, to prayer and worship. Then when the Blessed Day arrives our hearts will be so immersed in Him that when we arrive at the manger we will have the full realization that the only gifts of any lasting value were waiting for us before we got there. Our attitude should be the same as those first century shepherds. They were poor and had nothing to offer; but the King had been born. Only one response was open…only one gift was required: Go and worship Him. I am convinced that upon seeing Jesus they could only worship.
I know you may be thinking, “All year? What about the rest of the holidays? What about Easter? Surely, Easter has as much claim to year-round attention as Christmas.” I am not trying to diminish the importance of Easter. The Resurrection will always be the focal point of our faith. However, Christmas is the focal point of history; as someone once put it: “…the event that split time in two (BC & AD).” I am not trying to make a case for Christmas over Easter here. I think too often we isolate the cross from the cradle in our observance and celebration; we celebrate Easter and later we celebrate Christmas. Some might even exalt Easter over Christmas. However, I believe that when we do this we threaten to diminish the wonder of the Nativity. So often we find ourselves at the foot of the cross kneeling in His shed blood as we wonder in holy worship at a Love that would be willing to die for us. Yet, should we not as easily find ourselves in holy worship kneeling in manure-laden straw at the foot of the crib with adoring shepherds rejoicing over a Love that would be willing to live for and with us? It is the knowledge of what the Nativity meant, the incredible wonder of it that produced such a joy in the shepherds; that it compelled them to tell everyone they could find about it. And the word quickly spread:
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. (Luke 2:16)
For the shepherds a New Year had indeed begun. And that New Year did not put Christmas behind them; it was only the beginning. Love had come to and for them.
Love has come for us as well. If we would surround this day with its due honor of preparation and confession, remembrance and thankfulness; our thinking will begin to change. Suddenly, Christmas will transform itself in our minds from an end of the year celebration to the exalted centerpiece it was always meant to be; not separate from the cross but intertwined with it. We will see that both exist year round, that the cradle lies in the shadow of the cross, that they both exist within one another and both herald a new beginning…a truly New Year!
So when the world has packed away all their Christmas decorations and all the carols have been sung; may we be found every day of the year proclaiming the Christmas message; a message that not only reverently remembers the birth of a Savior, but prophetically proclaims His return:
“Joy to the world, the Lord has come! May earth receive her King!”
Ring out the old…ring in the new
Ring out the false…ring in the true
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be!
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