by Jim Sanderson
Editor’s note: The following sermon was preached by Mr. Jim Sanderson at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia on December 31, 2017. During the service Jim led the congregation in a New Year’s ritual of Passing the Light, whereby each member present was invited to light a candle, share an expression of gratitude, an expression of concern, and an expression of hope before passing the flame to the candle of another.
New Year's Resolutions
Once again we find ourselves facing the start of a new year. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that they seem to come at us faster every year. In any case prepare to welcome 2018.
I hope everyone is enjoying this New Year’s Eve, but when you think about tomorrow, it is a rather strange holiday: Why January 1st? Any day could serve as New Year’s Day and many have.
The earth, as far as we are aware, continues to orbit the sun in a regular fashion and we could really chose any point in that orbit to mark the end of one spin around the sun and the start of the next one.
In terms of astronomy and of nature’s cycles, January 1st does not seem to have any great significance, nor does it mark any preeminent historical event for our culture. One of the equinoxes or solstices might seem a more natural choice. History could also offer some interesting candidates. July 4th might mark the start of the American year—after all the French for a few years after their revolution celebrated July 14th as their New Year. Of course they threw out the whole traditional calendar and started over. It didn’t last.
Archbishop Usher in the 17th century calculated Creation as having occurred at nightfall preceding October 23, 4004; so there is an interesting choice.
Of course we would then get into the whole Julian vs Gregorian calendar problem—of which more later.
December 25th as the officially established birthday of Jesus would be a logical Christian choice, just as Muslims, Jews and Hindus, who have lunar based calendars, have moveable New Year’s days. Muslims commemorate the hijra; Hindus a legendary king; and Jews consider it the day God opens the book of fate. Chinese New Year is said to mark the beginning of spring and to commemorate the defeat of a legendary monster—celebrations can last several days. In many early cultures the birthday of the King or a significant God marked the new year.
So how did we wind up with January 1st? It truly was arbitrary: Julius Caesar decided the matter. He revised the Roman calendar in 153 BCE and chose the day of the election of the consuls, which could be said to be the start of the political year, as New Year’s Day, January 1st. The month is named for the god Janus who was two faced, one looking forward and one looking backward—appropriate for the new year, and perhaps symbolic of some political activity? This replaced the traditional New Year of March 25th, which was on the old calendar at the vernal equinox. This decision of Caesar’s eventually led to the situation where we have months named September, October, November and December in the wrong places. They got out of whack once the Romans inserted July and August for the respective Caesars’ sakes.
In time though Christ supplanted Caesar as the authority in Rome. Rome’s political authority also dissipated in the West, and March 25th reasserted itself as New Year’s Day. For the Catholic Church this worked out just fine. Once December 25th was established as Jesus’ birthday, it followed that the Annunciation had occurred on March 25th. The New Year thus marked the announcement of God’s entry into human history.
This practice was not however universally observed. Spain and parts of Germany went with Christmas Day. The Danes, perhaps because they saw so little of the sun in the winter months, celebrated the New Year on a long summer’s day in August. In France and the Low Countries, Easter was the preferred date—the religious significance is obvious. For whatever reasons the powerful Republic of Venice opted for February 1st, as did Ireland.
It was all very confusing, and in 1582 Pope Gregory decided to tidy it all up. His goal was to have all of the Church celebrate the various holy days at the same time, and to do that a common New Year was needed. Gregory choose to accept Julius Caesar’s choice and January 1st was officially proclaimed New Year’s day. It also marked the feast of the circumcision of Jesus, but that probably was not the reason for its selection.
Of course the Protestant nations were very wary of this new Gregorian calendar and took a very long time to come around. England and her American colonies continued to mark the New Year in March until 1752. When it was decided to catch up with the Gregorian Calendar we had to skip 11 days in the year in which they switched over. Thus George Washington came to mark his personal New Year on February 22nd rather than February 11th. In time all of Europe accepted the Gregorian calendar, and it has come to be the standard calendar worldwide for international dealings.
The notion of the year as a cycle would come naturally to those living in temperate zones. For others, observations of the night sky would establish the same concept. Measuring the passage of cycles required the establishment of a starting point. The idea of the calendar as a measure of one cycle seems to have first arisen in Egypt. The Egyptians loved cycles and they established at least three major cycles based on different starting points. The two fixed cycles governed daily life and religious life. The one governing daily life was the model for Julius Caesar as it had 12 fixed length (30 day) months and a 13th period of five days. The different starting points caused the two fixed cycles (the second religious calendar commenced on the day of the heliacal rising of Sirius) to fall out of step. They only marched together once every 1,460 years, but this did not overly bother the Egyptians. The third calendar commenced on the day the pharaoh had assumed the throne, so it had an independent existence from the other two. It does cause headaches for Egyptologists as the same year can be Year 30 of Pharaoh X for two months and Year 1 of Pharaoh Y for the remainder. The idea of more than one yearly cycle is still with us: We have the official year, the fiscal year, and the school year, among others.
In any case we humans have been measuring and celebrating the passage of time for a very long time indeed. Across ages and cultures, New Year’s celebrations have taken many forms both sacred and profane. New Year’s has been seen as a time when the future may reveal itself: Many New Year’s customs deal with predicting the future. Will it be a prosperous year ahead? Will there be good or bad weather? Plentiful harvests or poor? Will one meet the love of one’s life?
Light and fire also play their role. Old fires are extinguished and new ones lit—with obvious symbolism.
The New Year has also been an excuse for celebrations. Parties and maskings at this time are very old traditions. Special foods are eaten, and in many cultures gifts are given. For Austrians a suckling pig is the traditional new year dinner. In parts of Italy fish is served. We indulge, many of us, in champagne. In France and Italy gifts are exchanged. Belgian children compose special letters to read to their families, and Tongan children make up welcoming songs for the New Year. In Russia, Grandfather Frost appears to usher in the year.
My Scottish relatives like to observe the tradition of First Foot. According to this the first person to cross your threshold after midnight sets the luck for the year to come. The ideal first-footer is a tall dark male (dark means brunette rather than blonde). As few of my Scottish relatives are more than five-foot-six, I would be very welcome as a New Year guest. Indeed visiting on New Year’s Day is part of observations around the world. At the start of a new cycle, it is important to reaffirm connections and perhaps establish new ones. In many places this was the one day when young men might be encouraged to call upon young women to whom they had not yet been properly introduced. Have I mentioned that many New Year customs also have to do with fertility? Indeed the egg was originally a New Year’s gift.
So how do you mark the New Year? One year I observed a Japanese custom: Before the old year ends, write down all your regrets on a slip of paper and toss it onto the fire to burn them away and start the new year fresh. I also like an old European custom of opening the front door of the house at midnight to welcome the New Year in. I will also sometimes light candles at midnight, echoing old fire traditions. Perhaps you have noticed I have not yet mentioned New Year’s resolutions.
Some years I make them, some years I do not. I have a few for this year but I’ll return to that later. How about you? Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Do you keep them? Clearly the practice relates to the idea of a new start, of the power of the new year to purify us from our past. We do mean to keep them, but I wonder what the average lifespan of a New Year’s resolution is.
Still, what does this practice say about us? Well for one thing I think it may prove the old saw, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Every year we promise ourselves that we will do better, that we will kick this or that habit, that we will be more generous or more realistic, that we will be “new and improved”. For me this does point to one of our better traits as human beings. We do believe in the possibility of improvement; we have faith in ourselves. We have a desire to constantly remake ourselves. It is not human nature to freeze in time, to see ourselves as completed. We are works in progress. New Year's resolutions testify to our hopefulness.
They also testify to our faith in our abilities. We do not present New Year’s “petitions”, we make resolutions. We resolve to make the changes we think we should. We proclaim what we intend to do. We welcome the New Year by putting forth our plans for the next 12 months. I like this idea of annually reaffirming our potential, our power to grow—particularly as we join it to a sense of responsibility. By making resolutions we assume the responsibility to see them through. Really we proclaim responsibility for our own actions.
This is another aspect of the custom I like. It calls on us to focus on what we can accomplish. It makes no sense to resolve that we will have more sunny days in the New Year—we have no control over the weather. It does make sense to resolve to spend more time in outdoor pursuits, enjoying the sunny weather we are given. We cannot resolve to be free of illness; we can resolve to take more actions that are conducive to good health. We can not resolve to be more loved; we can resolve to be more lovable. You see my point. New Year’s resolutions are about what we can do. In a prayer one might ask for almost anything, but a resolution is a request we make of ourselves. Perhaps this means that resolutions have a better chance of being answered than prayers.
Resolutions are starting to sound like a very UU thing to do. After all, they affirm our humanity, speak to our hopes, and call on us to take responsibility—all very UU values. There is another UU value we can bring to New Year’s resolutions: That is our commitment to being realistic. Perhaps the reason many resolutions go by the board is that they were unrealistic in the first place. We simply asked too much of ourselves, or failed to consider external forces. Perhaps we even indulge in thinking that making the resolution at New Year will magically help us meet it. Whatever magic there is in this world is the result of working hard, not wishing hard. Just think of the magical holidays of your childhood and consider the hard work on the part of your parents to make them happen.
So let us bring realism to the process of making resolutions. For example you might want to become a vegetarian, but like me you may suffer from the twin afflictions of truly enjoying the taste of meat and not being overly fond of vegetables. To resolve to go vegan in the new year may well be beyond your powers. To resolve to cut down on meat and eat more vegetables may not. To resolve to learn more about vegetarian cooking might be a realistic step. After all, to be realistic you need to know how to properly balance your diet to meet your nutritional needs.
In the past I have resolved to cut back on sodium and cholesterol in my diet. Sodium I have done pretty well with, cholesterol not so much. So I will resolve to learn more about the cholesterol in my foods and start to make some healthy changes. I know myself better than to resolve, “Never again will I eat a potato chip”. But I can and have cut way back on my consumption of the tasty spud product. Resolutions that are sweeping in nature may not be very realistic. Only you have a good idea of what is realistic for you. Certainly if you feel you can meet a grand challenge you might give it a try. But perhaps a series of lesser challenges will work better.
I could resolve to be a happier person but that is both sweeping and vague. Perhaps I could resolve to do one thing a day to make myself smile. OK, I think I’ll do that along with the cholesterol thing. To resolve to be a nicer person, although laudable, is difficult to measure. Perhaps resolving to do one kind or generous act a day, or a week, will get you there in time.
I think this might be a UU way to do New Year resolutions: Set measurable achievable goals for yourself. To resolve to change, but to acknowledge that we are human, and that as such we can be creatures of habit. To make resolutions that acknowledge not only our strengths and hopes, but also our weaknesses. To accept that weaknesses are part of being human and that we have to deal with them. Perhaps simpler resolutions will lead us to follow through on them and thus develop our ability to follow through even further. Perhaps by avoiding the sense of defeat that comes with breaking an unrealistic resolution, we can increase our sense of hopefulness.
Remember too that the year is a cycle, and there really is no fixed starting point. We can start anew on a goal on any day of the year. After all there will be an orbit completed 365 days later.
Perhaps it is just as well that January 1st is a very ordinary day: No great seasonal change, no important historical anniversary, just another day like any other. Just another day on which we can resolve to change ourselves in ways we want to.
Happy New Year to you all.
Jim Sanderson currently serves as president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula