Happy New Year.
I watched the ball drop in Times Square from the warmth of my home in Dallas. It was ten degrees at midnight in New York City, colder than any New Year’s Eve except in 1917, when it was one degree. Mariah Carey performed on ABC’s broadcast, while Maria Menounos co-hosted Fox’s show and got married on live TV just after midnight.
You could spend New Year’s Day reading about ways to be happier, healthier, and wealthier in 2018. Or you could read about predictions in science, business, and culture. You could brave the cold to go outside and gaze at tonight’s Supermoon. If you’re like me, you’ll be watching college football much of the day.
What you’ll probably not do on this New Year’s Day is wonder why we have a New Year’s Day.
Why does January 1 begin the “new year”? (It doesn’t in many cultures around the world.) Why is there such a thing as a “new year”? And why does the concept of a new year matter to us beyond today?
Where did “New Year’s Day” begin?
If you lived without a calendar, nothing about today would tell you that it is any different from yesterday or tomorrow. You would know that the seasons have changed, of course. It’s definitely winter in Dallas (we will not get above freezing until Wednesday), while it’s definitely summer in Australia (the high in Sydney today is an enviable 80 degrees).
Over time, you would notice that there are four repeating seasons. You would notice cyclical changes with the moon and the stars. But you would probably not seek to identify one day as beginning the process all over again.
Where, then, did we get the idea for a “New Year’s Day”?
According to History.com, the earliest recorded festivals honoring a new year date back four millennia to the Babylonians. For them, the first new moon following the vernal equinox (late March on our calendar) began the new year. Egyptians began their new year with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rise of the star Sirius. The first day of the Chinese New Year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.
It makes sense to begin the year with such annual meteorological markers. However, January 1 is inauspicious in nature. Why, then, does it begin our new year?
In 46 BC, Julius Caesar implemented a new calendar beginning with January 1 (the month dedicated to Janus, the Roman god of beginnings). Medieval Christian leaders tried to relocate the new year to days with greater religious significance such as Christmas or March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). However, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day.
Why do we celebrate a “new year”?
So, many cultures have been celebrating a “new year” for at least four millennia. But why?
I find Jewish tradition to be relevant here. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, celebrated each year in September. This is considered the day God created Adam and Eve, thus the “birthday of the universe.” The Jewish people celebrate the day with candles, festive meals, the sounding of the ram’s horn, and prescribed prayers.
One Rosh Hashanah tradition I consider especially significant is “Tashlich” (from the Hebrew for “to throw”).
On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (unless it is a Sabbath, in which case Tashlich is observed on the next day), Jews go to a body of water (ocean, river, pond, etc.). They ceremonially cast their sins into the water, evoking Micah 7:19, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” After reciting this and other verses, participants shake out the corners of their clothing.
New Year’s Day is far more significant than an annual day to change our calendars and watch football. It points to our innate need as fallen creatures to start over with our Creator. We know that we are not who we should be. And we know that we need forgiveness for our past and hope for our future.
Begin your year with God
To experience both, let me encourage you to take fifteen minutes today to begin your year with God.
First, observe a personal Tashlich. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring to your mind anything in your life that displeases God, then write down what comes to your thoughts. Confess what you have written and ask your Father’s forgiveness.
Then claim his mercy and grace (1 John 1:9) and destroy your paper. I sometimes use the shredder in my study for this purpose. You can rip up the paper and flush it or burn it in the fireplace. However you dispose of it, rejoice that your sins are also gone, erased forever by the cleansing water of God’s grace.
Second, dedicate this new year to his glory. Ask him to lead you to fulfill his purpose for your life. Begin every day by surrendering that day to his sovereignty. And you will experience every day his “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
A century ago, Louisa Fletcher spoke for us all:
I wish that there were some wonderful place
In the Land of Beginning Again.
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
and never put on again.