American Sabbat: New Year's

A few months back, I wrote about my American Sabbats project, which is a series of round table discussions and rituals I am facilitating this year to shed light on the history, cultural context, and intention behind some of the secular holidays in the US. These holidays generate tremendous energy in our culture, but how many of us actually know the roots of their celebration? And, how relevant or applicable are these meanings in our current culture? Further, how can we, as spiritual practitioners, celebrate these holidays in a way that is intentional and meaningful, rather than just another occasion for thoughtless spending/consuming?

Although the concept of turning over the year in the solar or lunar cycle is as ancient as human curiosity, there has been great disparity about exactly when the "official" turn of the year happens. The earliest recorded celebration of the new year was in Mesopotamia in about 2000 BCE. At that time, the new year was celebrated around the date of the Vernal Equinox. For many, if not most cultures on Earth that followed the cycles of nature as their temporal system, the new year was usually celebrated between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. It was decidedly a "return of the light" holiday. The imposition of a man-made calendar assigned the new year to March 1 in Rome.

In fact, the months of January and February did not come into existence until 700 BCE, when Numa Pontilius named and instituted them. Before the revision of the calendar by Julius Caesar, Roman officials noted this date with the installment of two consuls into the highest offices in the land and homage to Janus, the two-faced god of transitions and thresholds. (Notice how his leaves make a heart? It's important. Even though the contemporary heart symbol was unintentional in the rendering, it's still important. Everyone who worships the guardians of crossroads knows that a good heart is essential to good choices.) After Julius Caesar revised the calendar in Rome in 46 BCE and was subsequently assassinated, Roman officials in 42 BCE chose to deify him on January first and paid him annual reverence thereafter.

In 567, the Roman Catholic Council of Tours dismantled the celebration of new year's on Jan 1, citing it as a "pagan" holiday. During this time, the new year was celebrated regionally on different dates throughout Catholic Europe: Dec 25, March 1, March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation), and Easter represent some of the approved days for celebration of the new year.

But oh, how those rascally pagans persisted, nonetheless! In 7th century Flanders/Netherlands, Roman Catholic Saint Eligius wrote a warning about new year's celebrations, "Do not make vetulas (little female statues; "vetula" in Latin means "Old Woman"), little deer or iotticos or set tables at night (for the house spirits) or exchange new year's gifts or supply superfluous drinks."

In 1582, Gregorian calendar reform reinstalled New Year at Jan. 1, though many countries still continued to observe their own dates and celebrations. Notably, the British Empire (including the US Colonies) did not acknowledge Jan. 1 as the official start of the new year until 1752. Prior to that, British new year was celebrated on March 25, "Lady Day." New Year's Eve/Day in the US falls on the borderline between Dec. 31 and Jan 1, in the Gregorian calendar.

Thus, we can see that Jan 1 as the "official" new year in the US is a end-result and man-made acknowledgment of a natural event: the Earth's journey round the Sun. And after all of the back-and-forth of religious politics around this date in Rome and beyond, we can hardly call it a purely "secular" holiday. So, if New Year's is actually a spiritual holiday, and specifically a pagan one, there must be vestiges of ritual and meaning in its celebration, right?

Well, yes and no. On one hand, there are all sorts of regional and local traditions to ring in the new year that may or may not have pagan roots or spiritual motivation, but are certainly ritualistic in approach. For example, the song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung lustily and with heartfelt feeling among many revelers across the nation, is an old Scottish folk tune that was "discovered" by Scottish poet Robert Burns in the region of Ayrshire when he heard a farmer singing it. Burns then wrote it down, embellished it, and published it in a book called Scots Musical Museum in 1796. Guy Lombardo, who had heard the tune sung by Scottish immigrants in Canada, first played the song for American audiences on New Year's Eve at the Roosevelt Hotel in NYC in 1929. Since then, the song has ritualistically been sung to welcome the new year in the US, to the degree that Life magazine once remarked, "that if Lombardo failed to play 'Auld Lang Syne,' the American public would not believe that the new year had really arrived."

In NYC, and across the nation, folks gather in Times Square or around their televisions to "watch the ball drop." In 1904, Newsman and entrepreneur Alfred Ochs purchased the area now known as Times Square, which had formerly been called Longacre Square. To commemorate the name change, he hosted the first of the now-legendary New Year's Eve celebrations on his new property. In 1907 he commissioned a 400-lb ball to be made of wood and iron, suspended from a flag pole, to drop and mark the exact hour and moment of the new year so folks could synchronize their watches (get it? TIMES Square? Note for clarity, in case your mind works like mine does: Ochs and his Times Square cronies did NOT found TIME magazine, which came along in 1923, published first as a newsworthy lark by two Yalies). Nowadays, this custom has grown voluminously: from the wooden ball to an aluminum one, to a lighted one, to an apple, and now to the current one dropped this past weekend. It is 12 feet in diameter, weighs nearly 12,000 pounds, and is covered with over 13,000 LED lights and 2600 crystals. This year, as every year since 1907 (with the exception of wartime "dimouts" in 1942 and 43), the ball has been lowered slowly over the course of the last minute of the year, reaching fulfillment at the exact second of midnight.

There are other local and regional traditions we covered in our discussion last night, such as eating Hoppin' John in what feels like Hoodoo to me, or the ringing of bells, launching of fireworks, etc. I won't get into all of these here, in favor of giving more room to the discussion we had during the roundtable. The attendees raised some great points in the discussion, and I intend to cover three of them here: the commercialization of the holiday, colonization and cultural appropriation versus exploring/creating our own traditions in the US, and the concept of resolutions.

It is likely that any investigation of most contemporary American secular holiday celebrations will eventually lead the researcher to the commercial roots of the celebration, and NYE is no exception. The first Times Square NYE celebration was in honor of a commercial media enterprise. As an icon, the ball symbolizes a lot more than a mere tool for the synchronization of watches. It symbolizes revenue at all stages of its journey: from the money generated by the sale of news media at its inception to the tourism dollars the US reaps from the millions of people who now travel to NYC to participate in the celebrations annually. The fact that the ball has grown so much in size, weight, and splendor over the years is a signifier of American prosperity and the American ethos of "bigger is better."

In our discussion at The Sacred Well last night, we explored the consequences of having commerce at the center of a secular celebration. When we look at spiritual or religious holidays in world history, we see what core concepts are at the center of each: family togetherness, community well being, the commemoration of an individual's rite of passage, the shared desire for revering a particular godhead or deity, or some natural event like a volcanic eruption or an eclipse. When we assessed American New Year's in our conversation last night, we could see one main theme emerging: the celebration of consuming alcohol. We opened our roundtable with the questions of "How do substances figure in to spiritual celebrations? Is there a "right" or "wrong" way to imbibe in a sacred ceremony? How holy can New Year's possibly be if it's brought to you by Budweiser?" One of the participants of Irish heritage, Sean, noted that although alcohol is a welcome and well-loved part of many Irish celebrations, it is the event and people one is celebrating rather than the alcohol itself. But to look around Times Square on NYE at all the billboards, flyers, and advertisements one wonders what is actually being celebrated: the alcohol or new year? It's not as if we are honoring Dionysus intentionally with this cultural celebration of drunkenness, nor Indra, nor any other specific deities of wine or drunkenness. It's not as if we are celebrating love and community; most of the people in Times Square are out-of-towners who do not know or care about one another. In fact, crime and cruelty are rife at New Year's Eve in Times Square, and the police presence is a bit overwhelming. So, if we are not gathering around the return of the Sun, nor the deities of wine, nor loving community, what are we gathering around?

We poked at this a bit more: here in the US, what does the turn of the year actually mean to us, collectively? In this melting pot of cultures where there are so many different interpretations of the new year, why do we gather around January 1 at all? Having been stripped of its spiritual significance, what is the relevance of New Year's in America, other than as an opportunity to party with friends? Further, when we gather with those friends, what is at the heart of the gathering? Is there a purpose beyond just the fleeting moment of intoxication?

Contemplating the melting pot dragged us further down the Rabbit hole. One attendee, Jalina, remarked that in Mexico City where she grew up Roman Catholic, her family would gather for a big meal at New Year's, and they would go to church together. Sean, Andrea, me, and others of Roman Catholic immigrant backgrounds all nodded in recognition: we all have memories of going to church with family and enjoying a meal of traditional ethnic foods at the holidays. Happy memories, all in all. But we then had to really look at another aspect of it: that the Roman Catholic Church picked and chose for us, and for our ancestors, what we would celebrate and how we would celebrate it. Catholicism is the legacy of colonialism in Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and many other countries. If Jalina was in pre-colonial Mexico, if Sean was in Ireland, if Andrea was in Italy, if I was in Poland, before colonization, before the Crusades, we would be marking our various new year celebrations in VERY different ways than we do now. Colonization and religious domination took away the pagan practices of our ancestors and replaced them with the activities and symbols deemed fit by church authorities. When our ancestors or we came to the US, the melting pot further stripped us of ethnic authenticity, rendering our names, foods, customs, and cultures more homogeneous.

Yet certain aspects of cultural traditions persist despite the efforts to squelch them. The tiny corn dolls and the wycinaki, or paper cut-out figures of Polish traditional art represent themes far older than Christianity, far older than what we now know as "western civilization." Like the vitulas given on new year's that St. Eligius warned against, these little icons are symbols of the Earth Goddess, or the primacy of nature. I believe that these symbols of devotion to the Earth represent the heart of hearts around which ancient and modern spiritual celebrations gather, in every culture. They are present in some secular New Year's Traditions, as well. The black-eyed peas are the bounty of the Earth. The First footing of Scotland, people going around visiting one another's homes at Hogmanay (new year) with gifts of coal and salt represent that the Earth provides all that we need, and that we are happily always able to share Her gifts, whether we can afford other fancy things or not.

Sadly, the ready availability of the gifts of the Earth in America is now questionable, with Big Ag controlling most of the food production, with Congress-created dust bowls where there were once verdant marshes, and with laws against harvesting rainwater as emblems of how far we have come from seeing ourselves in gentle partnership with this Earth, rather than as its lords and masters. When the Earth is no longer free, nor considered primary, but has been relegated to being dominated, corralled, and "owned," we lose sight of one common denominator around which we might have found meaning together despite cultural differences.

What happens when a culture is whitewashed and no common ethnic traditions can be established? Other traditions arise around commonly shared aspects of the culture instead. In the US, the common aspect around which most of our traditions gather is money. Not abundance, but money itself. Abundance would be the gift of the Earth freely given, but this land was decidedly NOT freely given. It was taken. Because just as our ancestors were colonized, we, too, are colonizers. When something has been taken, rather than earned or shared, it loses spiritual significance. So, while we Americans are participating in the customs of commerce during our holidays, we are nonetheless looking for meaning as well, and not finding any at the heart of our own culture. That is sad and unnecessary, because on the whole, our diversity makes us a very strong and wondrous people, and I feel we could learn a lot from turning inward and really looking at ourselves. Yet how often do we see people turning inward toward the spirit of America for a sense of relevance? Instead, many Americans take on the cultural attributes and religions of others rather than looking to our own cultural center for a sense of value, because a lot of us would really hate to admit that we actually worship money under the guise of freedom. It feels dirty and meaningless, doesn't it? Isn't it painfully ironic to consider that many of our indigenous and nomadic ancestors, and the ancestors of this land, held certain core values of revering the Earth and life that, due to time, greed, and evolution, we have cast away only to now go begging with fat wallets to gurus from "othered" cultures to teach us once more?

Around this point in the conversation, one of the attendees exclaimed, "Now I feel ashamed!" He was referencing something not specific to the idea of cultural appropriation, but it caught my attention. I believe this is the very core of the American Sabbats project: to ask the questions about why these secular holidays came to be, to acknowledge how they can be double-edged swords, to honestly ask ourselves what is at the heart of our culture and why it is there, to deepen into our feelings about it all, including righteous shame as well as righteous pride where earned, to sift through and gather the fragments that are good and dear and loving, to atone where possible (it's never too late to begin protecting the Earth and treating all beings with respect! Start today!), to leave behind the practices that feel unsustainable, overly-commercial, and ultimately joyless. As Americans, we have this sometimes-charming, sometimes-horrible need to always reinvent the Wheel. Our pioneering spirit means that we build up and tear down only to build up and tear down again. This is part of the human condition that transcends time and cultures, of course, but it is particularly prevalent in America, which my friend Doc E says, "Is going through its terrible twos (hundreds, that is.)"

But maybe we don't need to tear it all down and rebuild it. Maybe that would be wasteful. Maybe what is actually needed at this point is an evaluation and refinement process. I often hear people say, "The system is broken." I truly believe that while that is applicable in some cases, in many cases the system actually works remarkably well. After all, we DO have public libraries, education, roads, voting, firefighters, and even some pretty good-hearted police who are actually concerned with protecting us. But the values the drive the system are broken. A system without values is like a body without a heart. America lost its heart when colonizers stole land from the indigenous people and killed them. (I am reminded of the Chevy ad, "We're the heartbeat of America," placing money, again, squarely at the center instead of love.) In order to revive the still heart of America, I believe systemic analysis and contemplation are needed, followed by actions taken to reinstall healthier common values at the center of American discourse. A movement away from money as God to Earth as Goddess, and further toward Universe as All-encompassing and spacious enough for everyone, would help. Part of that work includes vesting our secular holidays with a deeper sense of thoughtfulness, love, community, reverence...all those things that have been lost, dismissed, slain, whitewashed, or converted out of us as being deemed "indigenous" or "pagan."

That brought us to the topic of resolutions. A young couple, Megan and (name not coming! Sorry! Jeff?), mentioned that although they have not made resolutions before, they are both struggling with certain difficulties in personal growth and financial survival that have given them pause, and that they were planning to make resolutions this year. Both of them have college degrees and yet are living the all-too-familiar story of working in piecemeal jobs or service jobs that don't challenge them intellectually or personally. They both feel ready to express their potential, yet also frustrated. Jalina mentioned that she doesn't do New Year's resolutions, but she has a sort of running "to do list." Sean said he doesn't make resolutions at New Year's, but that he does at his personal new year, his birthday.

We discussed how most New Year's resolutions are almost doomed to fail from the start. Physics teaches us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed- it merely changes form. In my personal magical practice, I can see how attempting to make drastic changes to entrenched forms overnight can be difficult and dangerous, aggravating and discouraging. Sustainable change, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, getting in shape, and repairing other forms of damage happen slowly over time. They are not usually instantaneously successful. Let's face it: a drunken moment of earnest feeling on New Year's Eve does not a firm and lasting commitment make. Then, when the resolution fails, folks feel ashamed (again, there is that shame!) because we have not fulfilled our promise to ourselves. When we cannot keep a promise to ourselves, we lose faith in ourselves. When we cannot resolve to do better and then follow that promise with sustainable change, we lose trust in ourselves. I have also heard a lot of folks bragging about how "they don't make resolutions, they just try to live right every day." Well, yes. OK. I get it- go ahead and live a good life every day. That is brilliant! I think it is a great idea. But how will things in our culture change at the larger level if we do not together resolve to fix them? And how can we create and sustain collective resolutions if we cannot trust ourselves to create and sustain personal ones?

I explained a bit about the word resolution. First of all, it contains the Latin word solve, which means "to loosen, dissipate, disperse." In modern parlance, the word means an expressed commitment to an action or ideal, or else it means bringing a conflict to an end via the establishment of a common ground. In its older, alchemical meaning, however, resolutionem (from the Latin), means "to reduce things to simpler forms." Isn't that what this whole essay has been about? About loosening the bonds of commercialism and opening the heart to deeper meaning in its place? About moving away from the mechanized, from the commercial, from the convoluted or contorted, from the myriad relativistic twists and turns, toward something simpler and more profound and more relevant that transcends all other cultural signifiers?

Isn't New Year's, simply, a celebration of the return of the light? What if we celebrated it as such in a non-denominational way, noting the passage of time as the central attraction? Wouldn't it be more effective if, rather than creating a 12,000 pound light-up ball that blinks only for one minute once per year and costs the Earth years in greenhouse gases from the travelling revelers, we lifted our hearts in gratitude for the Sun that shines every day, for the moon that marks yet other passages of time? What if we dedicated our resources toward resolving the Greenhouse effect instead of spending it on alcohol? Further, wouldn't it be better if, rather than coming up with a million defenses and excuses and justifications for why it was anyone's right to kill and harm Native Americans, the contemporary community of many different races who all benefitted from the Native Americans' first presence here restored them to the most honored and valuable lands we have, issued heartfelt words of compassion and care, generated fiscal resources for them and made governmental financial recompense, and began quietly embracing their respect for the Earth without appropriating their culture?

This is how the new world could be: centered on love, growth, care, and kindness rather than commerce, addiction, and secret shame. Everyone could still be themselves, but better.

We brought our probing and illuminating New Year's talk to an end with this thought, and then gathered together for a brief ritual in which we each resolved to take a small piece of our lives that we are already grateful for, and extend it further for the benefit of all. We all resolved that by being our personal best, we would lead by example. We resolved together to be the light of joy in the world, in whatever small and large ways were possible and available to us. Each attendee chose a personal means of sharing their light. I was inspired by all of the responses: I resolve to perform excellent self-care, I resolve to recognize the good in people rather than criticizing the bad all the time, I resolve to reconnect with my roots, I resolve to continue to explore and learn about my path and walk it well.

In the end, which is always the beginning, we cannot change the past. We can thank it, and let it go, like the old year. We can be present in our personal strengths and solutions for ourselves in the new year, and we can begin to collectively resolve to challenge the larger problems that loom over us, to gather around giving and sharing rather than taking and consuming. So mote it be!

I'd like to take a moment to offer my great thanks to those who attended the American Sabbats New Year's session last night. I look forward to the next one, which will be our Valentine's Day session on Feb. 15. See you there!