December 20, 2012
At the close of this year—at least in the Gregorian calendar— which is celebrated in Europe and in the Americas, I find myself reflecting on what entering a New Year means to people around the world. As I am at the end of my first year living abroad, the differences and similarities are foremost on my mind. Of course moving from sunny Southern California to a rainy North Germany has its noticeable differences. And, as we all know, climate affects our general outlook on life as well as our daily routines, and life rituals. I can now personally attest to the fact that sunnier climes create sunnier dispositions, and a general sense of optimism, which is less understood, in colder more northern parts of the world.
But what really makes it all so interesting is the fact that both places have fairly large immigrant populations, which bring their own cultural ideals, ways of life, and ritual celebrations into daily life. Everyone finds the time, once a year to celebrate the coming new year, and ritualize the “out with the old in with the new” which is historically so important, vital in fact, to cultures all over the world.
New Year celebrations were originally based upon harvest celebrations, which were informed by cycles of the sun, the moon and the movement of stars. There is a difference though, between the “civil” calendars adopted by countries and the religious calendars, which are followed by people all over the world, though they often exist and are celebrated side by side.
The Julian Calendar (a reformation of the Roman Calendar by Julius Cesar in 46 BCE) was intended to approximate the Sun’s cycle as it returns to the same position each year, in other words from vernal equinox to vernal equinox. The Berber people of North Africa still use this calendar, as do most Eastern Orthodox Churches.
As the Julian calendar is slightly inaccurate (it gained about 3 days every four centuries,) it was later replaced by the Gregorian calendar, (The Christian Calendar) in 1582, in order to have a fixed date for the Spring Equinox, to which the celebration of Easter is attached. It is now the more internationally, widely accepted civil calendar. However, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia do not adopt the Gregorian calendar as their civil calendar. Many other countries use their own calendars alongside the Gregorian calendar, such as: Bangladesh, Burma, India, and Israel. Then there are those that use a modified version of the Gregorian calendar: Cambodia, Japan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Taiwan.
The date of the Islamic New Year is determined by the visibility of the hilal, or the waxing crescent moon following a new moon and may vary according to location. The day that marks the beginning of the New Year in the Islamic Calendar is called Hijra. While Muslims do not “celebrate” the beginning of the year, they do acknowledge the passing of time, by reflecting on how they have led their lives and on their own mortality. It is very similar to the Jewish ritual of their New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
Nowruz (New Day), the Iranian and Zoroastrian New Year’s Day is celebrated on March 21stthe Spring Equinox. It is celebrated as a theme of renewal, personal renewal and that of the home and friendships. It is also celebrated as a secular cultural festival in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kashmir, Azerbaijan, as well as the Kurdistan regions of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Syria, and Georgia.
What do all of these human constructs of time; religious or civil have in common then? Plenty. People all over the world celebrate and ritualize the passage of time. Whether their New Year falls in February, March, April, September or November, or December, most cultures see this as a time of introspection and reflection, a time of rebirth— an illumination of the soul. It is a chance to be cleansed of the old sins of the previous year and celebrate the potential of hope for a healthier, happier, and prosperous coming year.
It was not until I moved to Germany that I first heard New Years referred to as Sylvester. I felt silly asking but I did, and found out that it is celebrated as Saint Sylvester’s Eve after Pope Sylvester I, who died in 335 and was reported to have miraculously cured the Emperor Constantine of leprosy. Since that time of “miraculous healing” New Years was traditionally called St. Sylvester’s Eve in predominantly Catholic countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Poland. Even in Israel where so many European immigrants landed, Israelis celebrate the civic holiday of New Years as Sylvester Nacht—who knew?
Fire, fireworks, and light are ritually used for dispelling evil spirits and marking the time of transition from darkness to light as we move away from the Winter Solstice. Even countries whose religious beliefs are not connected to the Gregorian calendar, often celebrate the civil New Year with fireworks, such as: Morocco, China, India, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Those that celebrate their new years at other times also use the element of fire as a cleansing, to mark this passage and burn away the previous years’ evils and sins and scare off any spirits that may wish to take up residence in the coming year.
In Iran and those following the Persian ritual passed down since ancient Zoroastrian times, the Persian New Year celebrations begins with the festival called Chahar-Shanbeh Souri, which literally means “Eve of Wednesday” because it is always held on the last Tuesday of winter, just before the Vernal Equinox or first moment of spring. The fire ceremony symbolizes the changing of seasons and rebirth. The tradition includes people going into the streets and alleys to make bonfires, and jump over them while singing the traditional song Zardi-ye man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man. This literally translates to “My yellowness is yours, your redness is mine,” with the figurative message “My paleness (pain, sickness) for you (the fire), your strength (health) for me.” The fire is believed to burn out all the fear (yellowness) in their subconscious or their spirit, in preparation for New Year.
Diwali, Festival of Lights, is a five day Hindu festival which falls between Mid-October and mid-November. Small clay lamps are filled with oil and lit to signify the triumph of good over evil, and firecrackers are ignited to drive away evil spirits.
In Mongolia, the Lunar New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar. It is celebrated in February, and candles are used on altars to symbolize enlightenment.
In Mexico the tradition of making lists of all the bad or unfortunate events of the past years are written down and thrown into a fire before midnight to remove any negative energy from carrying over into the New Year.
In Ecuador men dress up as women to represent the “widow” of the year that has passed and then create life-size dummies which are burnt at midnight to “burn away” the years past misfortunes.
Tibetans also celebrate Losar in February, and traditionally go out into nature to perform rituals of gratitude by making offerings to the water spirits and smoke offerings to local spirits of the natural world.
The Chinese New Year is known s Spring Festival and marks the end of winter, as families gather for a reunion dinner or Chúxi, which translates into “Remove Evening” or “Eve of the Passing Year.” Every family thoroughly cleans the house, sweeping away ill-fortune, cleansing it of evil omens from the previous year and making room for a new year filled with good luck.
Laotian people celebrate their Pbeemai April 13-15 by cleansing their homes and villages with perfumed water and flowers. The Burmese celebrate Thingyan April 13-16 with water as a means of washing away the sins of the pervious year. Water throwing and public dousing is rampant on the streets for days. In Nepal Fagu is celebrated on the full moon day in February by spraying colored water, and throwing water balloons at each other.
In Thailand the Songkran festival is celebrated from 13-15 April, by the throwing of water. However they can— jars, pots, water guns, are used as a means of washing all of the bad away, even spraying total strangers on the street. Of course we have to remember that in April temperatures can get up to 40C. In traditional celebrations, it is believed that good luck and prosperity for the coming year may be obtained by pouring water filled with fragrant herbs over the Buddhas on household shrines as well as at monasteries. This water is considered blessed and is then used to give good fortune to elders and family members by pouring it on their shoulders.
Red Underwear, Grapes, and Lentils
Believe it or not, another common link in New Year’s celebrations is the wearing of red underwear. Italians, Spanish, and Venezuelans all wear red underwear on New Years for good luck and love, though only the women in Mexico wear red underwear for finding love.
The Spanish, Mexicans, Chileans, Costa Ricans, Brazilians and Guatemalans all eat 12 grapes for each chime of the clock at midnight, making a wish for the New Year with each one.
Lentils seem to represent money and prosperity because of their round “coin” shape and are traditionally eaten by Brazilians, Hungarians, Chileans, and Italians. The Italians who seem to go lentil crazy— have lentils at dinner before midnight then take one spoonful of lentil stew per bell as the bells toll midnight.
So as 2012 comes to a close here in Germany, I will be celebrating Sylvestre and honoring the spirit of the transition from darkness into light, and wishing for a global time of renewal, hope and joy.
Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: firstname.lastname@example.org