The New Year’s Eve Ritual

I don’t like New Year’s Eve. There, I’ve said it! Unlike practically everybody else in the western world, there is just something about the forced revelry that doesn’t appeal to me. Generally I am a night owl but on December 31st, I find myself wanting to get to sleep by 10 pm. However, given the delight in the holiday exhibited by everyone else around me, I keep my sighs to myself and gamely participate in the eating, drinking and making merry. I don’t want to make anyone else unhappy and besides, it is a ritual.

I believe in rituals and think they are important. They allow us to identify who we are as individuals, families, and communities. New Year celebration partyThey provide security and stability in an uncertain world and they help us recognize life cycle transitions. They also give us a sense of belonging and context by connecting us to others who share the human experience with us. Given all that, I have gone along with the ritual of celebrating New Year’s Eve because it seemed like it was a good way to celebrate the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new.

However, this year I started to question the value of this particular ritual. The party I attended was pretty fun until we turned on the television for the countdown to midnight. Then, for a (mercifully) short time, we watched the New Year festivities in downtown Dallas. They had a contest to give away a car to someone in the audience (and the host was quite inexplicably rude to the people who didn’t win), there were several off-key singers and the usual camera shots of people desperate to ring in the New Year with alcohol, crowds, kisses and fireworks. It felt cheap and not particularly like a ritual I really wanted to have. It also got me thinking about what kind of a ritual New Year used to be.

Consequently, I did a little digging. The New Year festivity is a ritual with a long and rich history. In 2000 B.C., the Babylonians marked the celebration by paying off debts and returning borrowed goods. The Romans continued the tradition by offering resolutions of good behavior to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. They also used the occasion to seek forgiveness from enemies and to give gifts to loved ones (a tradition that may have gotten switched to Christmas time instead). Hmm…so people in earlier times used the new year to repair their relationships and promise good behavior. That sounds really good! So when did our celebration switch from that to being about alcohol and individualistic New Year’s Resolutions?

When you ask people about their New Year’s resolutions, the vast majority of them center around things they will do for themselves: eat healthier, save money, lose weight, exercise more or be better organized. Some will focus on individual relational patterns, like being more assertive or less negative. I haven’t done an official survey or anything but I’m willing to bet that most people’s resolutions do not involve forgiveness and personal atonement like those of our ancestors.

I can already hear the objections. What is so wrong with having a big party once a year and taking stock of personal goals? Well, nothing really except that, taken together, it all seems kind of small. As I said, I believe in rituals and one of the main reasons I do is because they are big. Rituals bind us together, they help us feel like we belong to something larger than ourselves, and they provide the canvas for the painting of our lives. In short, rituals are about the human experience and that is incredibly vast. Thus, if you reduce the ritual to a few hours of meaningless personal fulfillment and an increased emphasis on self, it feels trivial and empty. I’d rather start out with a bang.

As such, I propose a radical shift in perspective for New Year’s Eve 2015. We can still have the big party but perhaps the lead-up to it could be different. Everyone could spend some time alone or with their families in reflection about their relationships over the past year. We could list the things that went right and the situations we wish had been different. We could mull over the ways in which we could change our behavior so that even if the relational outcome isn’t what we wanted, at least we’d feel good about how we acted. We could contemplate forgiveness and other ways to enhance relationships — with ourselves, with our friends and communities, with our spiritual beliefs and with the earth. We could make a plan so that the new year will be something that is nourishing for both body and soul.

In doing this shift, we would be aligning ourselves once again with our ancestors and carrying on an ancient tradition. We would also be broadening our focus and making change that would be larger than just ourselves. Even if the resolutions were not fulfilled, at least it would be failure in the service of something grand. If nothing else, a shift in perspective would allow us to get rid of the endless articles written on what your resolutions should be and why it is that people never keep them. That in itself would be worth a lot.

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