The True Meaning of New Years

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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[3] 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.[4]

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.

[1] 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.
[2] [John Taylor], “Editorial Address,” T&S 5:1 (January 1, 1844): 391.
[3] I’m not sure what this word means, but I intend it as a temporal analogy to “embodiment.”
[4] “Letter from P. P. Pratt,” T&S 3:4 (December 15, 1841): 623.


  1. Thank you, Sam- you just enriched my own entanglement and bafflement at my love/hate relationship with New Years Eve.

  2. My favorite was the time when President Hinckley pointed out that every time the world utters the current they are implicitly making a reference to the verse of the savior given the AD in the date stades for “year of our Lord”. :)

    2011 AD is therefore a subtle reference Christ coming into the world.

  3. Cynthia L. says:

    Sam, you are a treasure. This captures my experience of the New Year as being simultaneously freeing and claustrophobic, and expands my understanding of that experience.

  4. Let’s hear it for 2011 CE.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Boy, if 34 is the halfway point, I’m on death’s door.

    (Great post, Sam.)

  6. Stephanie says:

    I love New Years for the same reasons.

  7. Kevin, I love how precious Parley was waxing at this point. He was alluding, as most did then, to the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” as the divinely decreed lifespan for postdeluvian humans. Funny to think of the Restoration as being carried out by a bunch of thirty-somethings with high ideas, but there you have it.

  8. In traditional societies, New Years was the time that the dead returned, which makes Pratt’s reflections and Mormon work for the dead more poignant

  9. Ha. You and me both Kevin.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    Great stuff.

    Although the great mass of humanity has little or no interest in contemplating anything beyond its navel: what it should take back to Best Buy and what keep, things of that nature: whether, with greatest trepidation, to cast themselves one inch or two into the great beyond. Perchance I can lose twenty pounds this year, or at least not gain any more weight. Perhaps this year I’ll become a rock star. We can’t call anyone into reflection of great import because they don’t believe there are such things. And we, by and large, don’t either; convinced as we are that God is the more pleased the tidier, nay duller, we are. I’m not so much looking for an angel help me at the side of the road as an angel that will melt the earth with the white hot breath of her indignation. 2011, bring it on.

  11. Thomas Parkin says:

    New Year’s Resolution: Don’t grouch and humbug over other people’s good time quite so much.

  12. Thomas,
    That is a wonderful resolution–to rejoice with those who rejoice, a bit more frequently. Thank you for giving me the impetus to do the same.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 10

    You’re getting a little ahead of yourself, Thomas. All in due time:

    Happy New Year, everybody!!

  14. Latter-day Guy says:

    This is fantastic, Sam.

    At New Years I am reminded of the shared lot of humanity…. 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.

    Thank you. You have no idea how much I needed to read that today.

  15. Cynthia L. says:

    Wow Mike. Unfortunately you share the link too late for me to buy those flaming asteroid Tshirts for everyone on my Christmas list.

    And me three on Thomas & Sam’s resolution.

  16. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    This is a great post, thanks. Happy New Year. I was hoping for a New Years OP. The “jury is still out” with me on New Years. It feels sort of like a birthday. It’s meaning to me seems to change year to year, ever since I can remember. There was a phase of goals and resolutions; but that has faded, I think, because I felt that doing that was a response to an arbitrary moment in time instead of feelings and motivations borne naturally. Then there was a phase where I felt more of a connection with the past and reflection; but that has faded because I guess I feel the past is not real to us in the present. The past, “doesn’t do anything.” I guess I’m in a place where the value of New Years is its aesthetic: no work, holiday carnage strewn about, closed commercial establishments, pale faces, vacant freeways, suburban recovery and emptiness, the Twilight Zone marathon, sergio leonne’s anthology, people taking walks in warm clothes at 10:30 a.m., relatives’ car lights fading into the distance, token sporting events, and enjoyable loathing and idleness. It’s a swath of feelings all packed into one day that leaves me feeling bewildered. In that way it is a unique day like no other of the year, which I’ve enjoyed experiencing as of late. It’s a day that asks most on the planet the question: can you enjoy a societal “time out” for a day?

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