New Year Festivities Vary by Religion, Culture

Stephen Lynch Features

An article by Stephen Lynch of Providence, R.I., appeared in the December issue of The American Catholic.  An excerpt is below.

The end of the year brings the celebrations of very important festivals.  Three great religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, celebrate special festivals in the closing months of the year:  Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, and the Islamic Maal Hijra. The entire world celebrates the New Year festival in one form or another.

For vast segments of the human race, the New Year has a profound religious meaning.  While many religions celebrate the New Year as a religious festival, Christianity does not.  Surprisingly, Christianity attributes no special religious significance to the New Year celebration.The reason for this rests on the fact that there is no mention at all of the New Year festival in the New Testament, and only a passing reference to one in the Old Testament.  Scholars are puzzled by the Bible’s mysterious silence on this universally important festival.

Many cultures ring in the New Year on January 1. In other calendars, the date of the New Year differs but the spirit is the same, i.e., people celebrate life and renewal. Christian countries focus more on the cultural side of the New Year festival. Unfortunately, this takes the form of noisy parties, rather than reflection on quiet religious realities. For modern Christians, the New Year celebration not only looks backward to creation and life-giving, but forward to God’s universal kingship through Jesus Christ.

Twentieth century discoveries of ancient Mesopotamian literature have shown that the New Year festival stood out as the most important religious celebration of the Babylonian calendar. In the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia, each New Year reflected a new creation, a new victory over Tiamat, the serpent-monster of chaos.

The creator-god, Marduk, kills the monster, Tiamat, and thus gives the earth a new start in life. This victory brings a new kind of communion with the divine principles of life. For the Mesopotamians, the New Year enabled human beings to renew their own personal vital forces. All true spirituality should promote a sense of the presence in our lives of the divine principle at the center of the cosmic mystery.

For the Jewish people, the present New Year festival represents a post-biblical feast recalling the ancient creation motif described in the first book of the Bible. The Jews celebrate the victory of God over chaos by the act of creation. Another aspect of the Jewish festival focuses on the enthronement of Yahweh as king, savior, and judge. God reigns by His power in nature and by His power in history through His saving deeds on behalf of the human race.

God’s divine judgment on the works of human beings tempers the people’s joy with a sense of fear and sorrow for human failures. Part of the Jewish New Year observance recalls the need for forgiveness and for God’s mercy.  This need takes the form of the renewal of the covenant.

There are similarities between the Jewish New Year and the ancient Mesopotamian New Year:

1. Greeting the higher powers first in the hope that this act of respect will bless their New Year.
2. Combat against chaos;
3. The cycle of life, death and new life;
4. The enthronement of the divine being.

In the case of Babylonia, the divine being was called Marduk.  In the case of Israel, the Divine Being is Yahweh.

Many cultures ring in the New Year on January 1.  In other calendars, the date of the New Year differs but the spirit is the same, i.e. the New Moon brings hope that a new start in life is possible. People celebrate life, spiritual renewal and a desire for deeper appreciation of relationships.