with the Old: New Years Rituals
by Donna Henes Brooklyn
Years is a return to the eternal beginning back to where there is
only hope and promise and enthusiastic, well-intentioned energy. Back
to the original big bang back seat cosmic conception. Back to the future.
New Years is the birthday of everything. In accordance with this understanding,
New Year's Day is celebrated throughout Asia as everybody's birthday.
Everyone within society is automatically one year older, all at the same
time older and ostensibly wiser.
The time of the Great Turning is critical, for it creates the ambient
atmosphere and attitude for the entire year, decade or even century to
come. The period preceding the actual New Year is typically devoted to
reflection, repentance, restitution, resolution and focus on rebirth.
Once a year, on New Years Day or on our birthday, we take the time
and make the commitment to confront our true selves. We think about the
intention and direction of our lives. We evaluate our progress. We assess
our sins and redress the wrongs of our own doing. We promote positive
personal change. We cultivate compassionate forgiveness, understanding
and acceptance of ourselves and empathy for others, so that we might truly
begin anew with a clean slate.
The New Year rituals of many lands enact a literal removal of the old
year and an attendant readiness for the new. At Asura, the Moroccan New
Year, the figure of the mythical being Baba Aisor, The Old Year, is buried
in the earth. Similarly, in Ecuador effigies of the old year, Año
Viejo, are constructed from clothes stuffed with straw and then burned
at midnight on New Year's Eve. In Laos, the Goddess of the Old Year departs
on the last day, leaving the people for one full, dangerous day before
Her replacement arrives. Today, in the West, the old year is personified
by Old Man Time, who limps out leaning on his scythe. He exits upon the
arrival of the brand new baby year, scattering the used pages of the old
calendar behind him.
In a grand operatic out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new gesture, Italians
throw all the belongings that they no longer want out of their windows
on New Year's Eve. Everything from used bars of soap to broken sofas is
dispatched with abandon. In a more tame tradition symbolic of the same
spirit, the Mayans replace all of their articles of every day use. And
in many Native American cultures in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres,
hearth fires are extinguished and ritually rekindled. On Songkran, Thai
New Year, birds are released from their cages to fly free and bowls of
fish are returned to the rivers. In Japan, all debts are paid.
All over the world houses are scrubbed and walkways swept clean. In old
England, New Year's Day was the annual sweeping of all chimneys. The expression
make a clean sweep comes from this custom. Moroccans pour water over themselves,
their animals, the floors and walls of their homes, and in Wales, children
scatter water over the houses of their neighbors in order to bless them.
At New Year in Bengal, pilgrims bathe in the River Ganges. The Cherokee
spend the eve of the New Year in vigil on the banks of a river. At dawn
they immerse themselves seven times, emerging purified and new like the
The old year never goes out with a whimper. Worldwide, the great turning
of the year is greeted with raucous noise, which effectively shatters
and scatters any evil spirits lurking about. Jews sound a ram's horn strong
enough to cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. The Chinese
set off fireworks in the streets. Hungarian herdsmen crack their whips
to turn the year as they would their herds. In Denmark, people smash all
the year's broken crockery against their friends doors in a New
Years benediction. In cities across America, drunken men gather
on rooftops and shoot their firearms into the sky.
As the moment of the New Year approaches, Igbo children dash home and
bolt themselves inside so that they wont be carried off by the old
year. They bang on the door and wail the whole while, joining the village-wide
loud lament. Tibetan magicians perform New Year exorcism dances wearing
demon masks, brandishing daggers and beating skull drums. At midnight
on New Year's Eve in Japan, the watch gong rings out 108 times to purge
the 108 human weaknesses describes by Buddha.
On New Years Eve, bells, horns, whistles, and sirens ring all over
the world, sending shrill cheers into the middle of the night for the
grand changing of the annual guard. This New Year, may we all together:
Ring out the old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lusts of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Henes, Urban Shaman, is a contemporary ceremonialist specializing in multi-cultural
ritual celebrations. She is the author of Moon Watcher's Companion and
Dressing Our Wounds In Warm Clothes, as well as the CD, Reverence To
Her: Mythology, The Matriarchy & Me. For further information or
a complimentary issue of Always in Season: Living in Sync with the Cycles,
contact Mama Donna's Tea Garden and Healing Haven, (718) 857-2247, Email: