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Out with the Old: New Year’s Rituals
by Donna Henes • Brooklyn

New 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 Year’s 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 year.

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 friend’s doors in a New Year’s 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 won’t 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 Year’s 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.

— Alfred Tennyson

Donna 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: CityShaman@aol.com, www.DonnaHenes.net