New Year’s Day—How New?
IT’S early New Year’s Eve as Joe gets behind the wheel of his car and leaves home to pick up his girl friend. Later, as he turns down her road, Joe smiles, thinking about the midnight hour, when the New Year will be welcomed in with noisemakers, and every pretty girl at the dance will be eligible to be kissed.
But he does make a mental note to watch his drinking, because he doesn’t want an accident when coming home. It won’t be easy though; almost everyone drinks too much at New Year’s parties.
Getting home late presents no problem. After all, Joe has nothing planned for New Year’s Day except sleeping late and watching football in the afternoon.
Joe doesn’t think of himself as religious. So he might be surprised to learn that everything on his agenda—noisemaking, kissing pretty girls, drinking—descended from the rituals of ancient religions that Joe would want no part of.
Joe’s counterparts in Japan, Mexico, China, Germany and elsewhere celebrate New Year’s differently from Joe and from one another. Yet they, too, are upholding the same ancient myths, usually without knowing it. What are those myths? Why is New Year’s the oldest, most universal and least understood of man’s holidays?
First New Year’s Celebrations
For insight on Joe’s New Year’s party let’s turn to ancient Mesopotamia, where the first New Year’s festivals were held.
The Mesopotamians believed that the universe was created after a colossal struggle between their god Marduk and Tiamat, goddess of chaos. Marduk violently brought forth order from chaos. Every year his accomplishment was memorialized when the life-giving rains arrived.
Since the king represented order, he went into seclusion for several days, during which the populace literally re-created chaos by drinking, allowing slaves to insult their masters, and by committing sexual immorality. The ancient Romans picked up the same idea in their festival of the Saturnalia in December.
Does it sound a little like Joe’s party? It should. As stated in a 1972 book about celebrations: “There is a great deal of excessive drinking throughout the world on New Year’s Eve. This drunkenness is a secular leftover of a rite that was once religious in character; a personal reenacting of the chaotic world that existed before the ordered cosmos was created by God,” that is, as viewed by the religion of ancient Babylon.
In Babylon, where the New Year’s Festival was most highly developed, it also involved an elaborate ritual of exorcism, to get the ‘demons of chaos’ out of the city as the New Year began. At Joe’s party this is done by noisemakers, sirens and boat whistles. The Chinese, who got many of their religious ideas from Babylon, chase the demons away with firecrackers.
Of course, the ancient Babylonians did not have a football game on New Year’s Day. But for their celebration, all the gods of the towns surrounding Babylon were brought into the city and joined in an impressive parade, to help Marduk win his battle with Tiamat. The great battle itself was relived through a public reading of the Enuma elish, the creation epic that told the story.
Today in Pasadena, California, a great parade precedes the annual New Year’s Rose Bowl football game. Is the game a modern version of that ancient ritual battle? The Encyclopædia Britannica puts it this way: “Football games in the U.S. have all the external trappings of religious festivals . . . one side representing evil and the other good, depending upon the viewpoint of the members of the audience. Leading the congregation are the priestesses (cheerleaders) . . . Operating on the principle of sympathetic magic, the priestesses attempt to transfer the enthusiasm of the crowd to the appropriate combatants.”—Macropædia, 1976, Vol. 7, p. 202.
Whether it descended from an ancient ritual or not, it has taken on a religious significance for some fans.
In many Germanic countries, it is the custom to melt lead or tin and plunge it into water at the stroke of midnight, just as the New Year arrives. Then, by looking at the shape created or the shadow cast by that shape, everyone tries to guess what the New Year holds in store.
In Mexico, crowds of people visit the ancient Mayan city of Mitla on January 1. Among its ruins there is a stone ‘Column of Life.’ While a person tries to embrace the column completely, someone else determines how many fingerbreadths of space remain between the outstretched hands. This is supposed to correspond to the number of years the person embracing the column will live.
The Japanese are very concerned about their first dream of the New Year, which is felt to reveal their luck for the coming year. Special good-luck papers and charms may be purchased to ensure a pleasant dream.
All of this reminds us of the ancient Babylonian efforts to divine the future. The New Year’s Festival was especially important in Babylonian divination, for then there occurred the “fixing of the fates” for the coming year.
Numerous peoples carry on the tradition today. Joe doesn’t know it, but kissing a girl under the mistletoe was originally a way of divining whom a person would marry. Joe would really ‘fix his fate’ if he had to marry every girl he kissed under those circumstances!
“Just Having Fun?”
“All of that is very interesting,” Joe might object, “but for me, New Year’s is just an occasion to have some fun.” Many people feel this way. Religious history aside, is New Year’s a harmless holiday?
In the United States, about 400 people die in traffic accidents during each New Year’s holiday, and half of those deaths are related to alcohol. While vehicle travel increases 4 percent during holiday periods, traffic deaths increase 24 percent. What is killing those people? Alcohol-related “fun.”
Nor is the United States the only country with this problem. France, West Germany, Canada and Portugal are but a few of the countries with higher automobile death rates than the United States.
The modern “re-creation of chaos” on New Year’s Eve leads to other problems as well. As a New York City assistant police chief put it, “New Year’s Day is a time when people drink, and when people drink they lose control.” During the first few hours of 1980 in New York city 6 people were murdered, 30 felonies were committed on subway trains, and in a Times Square crowd 50 people were injured and 51 people were arrested. Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, thousands of revelers ran amok for three hours, throwing rocks at policemen and smashing store windows. Was this ‘just having fun’?
What Will You Do?
Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not you will likely see the practical value of the Bible’s advice at Proverbs 22:3: “Shrewd is the one that has seen the calamity and proceeds to conceal himself.” If you can foresee danger in your New Year’s plans—from overdrinking, dangerous associations, drunk drivers on the roads—why not make a change? You may save your life and the lives of those with you.
What if you consider yourself to be a Christian—would this affect your view of New Year’s celebrations? Well, can you imagine the apostle Peter’s going to a New Year’s party? Notice what he wrote in his first letter, 1 Peter chapter four, verse 3: “You spent quite long enough in the past living the sort of life that pagans live, behaving indecently, giving way to your passions, drinking all the time, having wild parties and drunken orgies and degrading yourselves by following false gods.”—The Jerusalem Bible.
In view of the origins of New Year’s celebrations, isn’t it likely that Peter would consider today’s New Year’s parties to be “the sort of life that pagans live”?
“But it’s not as if I go to wild parties every night!” some might object. “This is a special occasion—just once a year.”
In this connection, you might ask yourself what overindulgence “just this once” can do to your reputation, with both God and men.
“Dead flies are what cause the oil of the ointment maker to stink, to bubble forth. So a little foolishness does to one who is precious for wisdom and glory.” (Eccl. 10:1) Just as expensive oil can be ruined by a single dirty fly, a good name can be ruined by a single night’s foolishness. Why take the chance?—Eccl. 7:1.
This New Year’s Eve, thousands of people will ‘have a good time’ at a party, try to drive home, and harm or kill themselves or others. Thousands more will humiliate themselves or their mates by behaving foolishly in an alcohol-laden atmosphere. Others will not be able to resist immoral temptations because of their surroundings.
These are some of the risks that Joe is taking this New Year’s Eve. What about you?
[Picture on page 23]
“Football games . . . have all the external trappings of religious festivals.”—Encyclopædia Britannica