How Many New Years?


I persuaded my oldest daughter to get married on December 31st.  My persuasive arguments? Her sister and brother-in-law would be home for the holidays, they could file a joint tax return, and when they celebrated their wedding anniversary, the whole world would celebrate with them. This year they will have their 25th new beginning as a married couple, a new beginning that starts with a holiday.

January 1st is an arbitrary date, marking the end of the Roman Saturnalia that began with the winter solstice.  Chinese New Year is in February.  On the old style calendar New Year’s Day fell in France on what is now April 1st.  Those who failed to switch and continued to celebrate the old date were—you guessed it—April fools. The Jewish New Year is in the fall, and the Celtic new year began with Samhain, which morphed into Hallowe’en.  Both traditions defined their days from dusk to dusk, so it was fitting that they celebrated the expected return of the light in late December  by going into the darkness after the autumnal equinox.

Each of us has other new years as well.  My birthday is June 30th, the last day of the state fiscal year. (It used to be the last day of the federal fiscal year, but Congress had too much trouble getting a budget passed in time, so they moved it up six months.  Now they never get a budget passed in time.)  So a new year in my life begins every July 1st, and as an economist specializing in state and local public finance, I am pleased to know that it coincides with a new fiscal year.

From age 5 to age 75, my life was also guided by the academic calendar as I progressed from kindergarten o college professor.  Our academic contracts took effect August 15th.  One year I held a new year’s eve party for a group of professor friends on August 14th. Back to school is definitely a new beginning each fall for students and teachers alike, leaving behind the failings of the previous year, committing to do better, and building on the learning of the year before.

While we associate New Year’s Day with parades, football games and in the south, collard greens, for many of us it is a chance to start over, a new beginning.  In the Celtic tradition one casts away those experiences, habits, grudges, complaints, that we do not want to carry as baggage into the new year. On the positive side, we can make resolutions.  The advantage of celebrating multiple new years instead of just one is that we have more than one chance to start over. Your diet and exercise plan or commitment to keeping a journal or promise to call your parents every week didn’t last until the end of January?  No problem.  You can begin again on Chinese New Year, the old French New Year, your birthday, the new school year, and/or the Jewish or Celtic New Year.  It’s never too late, or too early, to start over.

A Happy New Year, and many more in 2019.

Winter Holidays

Most of you know I am a big fan of holidays.  This year Hanukkah (eight days starting December 3rd) runs alongside Advent (December 2nd to 24th) and tiptoes through Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th). Solstice is the 21st, so have your Yule log ready.  Then Christmas and Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and finally Three Kings’ Day (January 6th), rounding out exactly a month of winter holidays.  I usually forgo Hanukkah and Kwanzaa because I don’t know the routine and stick with my Western European heritage represented by Christmas and solstice.  But all of us in the Northern Hemisphere are celebrating the same thing. light. Hope. Warmth.  Snuggling down into our winter cocoons and letting the seeds of renewal germinate inside us. I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating Christmas in Australian and New Zealand!

Every year I struggle with how best to to celebrate these holidays. For years I was teaching at the university up till maybe ten days before Christmas, and I found it  hard to quiet the mind for Advent, or turn the Christmas spirit off to grade exams and then turn it back on.  Now it is much easier to set the work aside.  I do not shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Each year I try to spend less money on gifts and more time on experiences–music, theater, movies with the grandchildren, listening to Christmas music. (Deck the Halls is my personal song.)  I refuse to consult wish lists, trying instead to listen to who each person is and get them the right book and the right funny socks or T-shirt that rflects what is special about each of them. I try to observe the solstice in ways that are respectful of Mother Earth by generating less waste (reusable cloth gift bags are this year’s addition), turning down the thermostat, and shopping locally from small stores and artisans.

Certain things are slow to change.  Christmas is still family time. When my dear husband of 53 years died just a few weeks before Christmas in 2015, my three daughters took on the task of supplying the traditional gifts–a book, a nightgown, and a jigsaw puzzle.  The jigsaw puzzle is for after the kitchen is cleaned up from four or five days with the eleven people in my immediate family.  But as I get older, I farm more tasks out.  The home is smaller, and so is the tree.  I have been giving Santas from my large collection to daughters and grandchildren. I know the day will come when we gather at my oldest daughter’s house, but I’m not ready yet.

In Hindu tradition, when one’s hair is white and one has seen one’s grandsons, it is time to let go of household responsibilities and material possessions and seek the life of wisdom and the spirit.  I’m not there yet, but I’m moving in that direction, and the gradual evolution of my Christmas holidays is one of the times that invite me to reflect on this stage of the journey.  That’s the start of my passage.  How is yours?