I love the winter holidays and am fascinated by the ways people employ ideas about the meaning of these national (and complexly religious) ritual observances. Many of us have been reminded in various avenues to keep the “true meaning of Christmas” in mind; less often do I hear requests to keep the true meaning of New Years in mind. This seems to me to be a problem.
In part this is because New Years Eve/Day no longer hold any terribly religious content. People associate it with drunken revelry, a James-and-the-Giant-Peach-style clock in the self-consciously titled “Times” Square, off-key but energetic singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” and the fading probability over time of being awake when second, minute, hour, day, month, and year change simultaneously. (Unless I’m working, I tend to be asleep by 10 pm on New Years Eve anymore.)
This was not always the case. While few if any have tried to associate a crucial event from the life of Christ with a change in calendars, in relatively recent history New Years was considered a time for crucial reflection on the state of one’s soul, the nature of time, and our relentless march through mortality. Further back in time (or in some modern non-Western cultures), the new year was the focal point of the entire calendar.
Nineteenth-century papers and diaries record a variety of reflections—not the inefficiently pietistic resolutions with which we are most familiar now, but strenuous intellectual and spiritual wrestling with the meanings of the passage of time—around the New Year. When John Taylor faced the dawning of 1844, he reflected that “the events that have transpired in the by-gone year mingle with those before the flood; and we are now ushered forth with the rapidity of the whirling spheres, into the cumbrous, the uncertain, the unknown future.” The changing of the calendars—those human conventions by which we try to maintain symmetry between our rhythms and the cosmic rhythms—often induces reflection on what it means to move unidirectionally through time. Astronomers and physicists like to smirk knowingly when we muse about its meaning, calling time the “fourth dimension,” which is really just a mathematical/geometric shorthand to make fancy equations work. Speculative fictionists love to smirk more knowingly still as they ponder the meaning of wormholes or other fanciful creations of equations and theories as they push against the possibility that our entemporalment could perhaps be short-circuited without having to die first.
For the rest of us there is the recognition (recently beautifully conjured by George Handley and more remotely evoked by Vladimir Nabokov) that what we pass through becomes past, and it is our inability to extend certain moments that brings us to some of the greatest sorrows of our lives. We sometimes speak of nostalgia, the painful yearning for home, and often we mean a painful yearning for past. There is in this nostalgia the recognition that the people we have loved (including, we hope, ourselves) are not the same people they are now or will be in the future. Even when we desperately love the people they are now there remains the intermittent, piercing hunger for who they once were.
This of course is the reason that mortal farewells remain painful, even for those of us with a sacred confidence in post-mortal reunion. We cherish who we are together at a moment in time. In the melancholy and melodramatic reflection of apostle Parley Pratt on the meaning of time in 1841,
I am now 34 years of age—next year I pass the narrow strait of middle life, the half way house between life’s opening and its close. . . . I stand as it were on a pinnacle between two worlds, and hardly know to which I belong—perhaps my old acquaintance are as numerous in heaven as on earth, and I hardly know in this division of my affections, to which I am the most attached.
I love New Years because it is a time to reflect on the meaning of our entemporalment, the fact that we are exquisitely, painfully, gloriously mortal for the briefest of cycles in the lifespan of the cosmos.
I also love New Years because it is non-sectarian. I love Christmas, love to tell stories about Jesus, to share with my children the shocking mysteries of the New Testament, to see December 25 as a time when the faded sunlight and its attendant snowy cold draws my mind to the Incarnation of God. I also love that my friends who have little interest in Jesus can celebrate generosity, family intimacy, and communal feasts in the same season. At New Years I am reminded of the shared lot of humanity, of our nostalgic mourning for what has passed and our anxious anticipation of what stands before us. This is an insight that I believe acknowledges the human predicament in a way that can universalize rather than particularize, that can make large groups feel welcome as we reflect on matters of great import.
 Although I confess it’s a bit “retro” on my part, I still think Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return and The Sacred and the Profane are very useful in understanding the scope and meaning of new year celebrations in traditional cultures.
 [John Taylor], “Editorial Address,” T&S 5:1 (January 1, 1844): 391.
 I’m not sure what this word means, but I intend it as a temporal analogy to “embodiment.”
 “Letter from P. P. Pratt,” T&S 3:4 (December 15, 1841): 623.