It is worth remembering that New Year’s is the oldest human holiday. It’s true. One of the oldest written documents in the world is called the Gilgamesh; and in that story Gilgamesh, the king himself, has an encounter with a strange antagonist who approaches him while he is celebrating the New Year’s festival. Another of the oldest stories in the world is the Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian version of the creation of the world. Scholars now know that this story was told and enacted once a year in the Babylonian New Year’s festival called the Akitu.
If celebrating New Year’s is more than five thousand years old, then there must be something about it that is psychologically deeply satisfying. It is symbolic, of course. Nothing actually changes on January 1. In fact, January 1 has not been New Year’s day for as long as you might think. March 1 was the day preferred by the Romans, from whom our calendar is derived. In England, March 25th was the preferred day for the change of the year up until the 1700’s. The springtime has generally been the most common time of transition. We have it in the winter based on the winter solstice. Julius Caesar himself set January 1 on the winter solstice, but then decided that he wanted the first year of the new calendar to begin on a new moon. So we miss the solstice by about 10 days.
The symbolic trappings remain however. Few people remember that the funny looking pointed New Year’s hats are actually the hats of the Babylonian astrologers who watched the night sky so carefully. Or that the original purpose of the New Year’s noise makers was to scare away the bad spirits. Or that typically a mock battle would be held in which the Old Year battled the New Year, or Summer battled Winter. We call it football now, and celebrate bowl games instead. Originally, it was very important that the king and the queen should come together and conceive a child on this day, ensuring the fertility of the crops for the coming year. All that remains is the midnight kiss.
Symbolic though it may be, the importance of New Year’s remains. And its psychological meaning is important we all need a sense of renewal. Most of us have a way of forgetting that living life is just plain hard. Life is deeply tiring. The energy for life and living that each of us has available is not unlimited. Our enthusiasm wears out, if it is not renewed. Our reasons for getting up in the morning wear thin, if they are not reenergized.
All of this is related to the ego, that part of ourselves we know best. But our egos are vulnerable. “Ego identity” has to do with the picture we have of ourselves and throughout the year life hammers away at that identity. A variety of events have a way of challenging our ego identity blows of pride and self-esteem, things that don’t turn out our way, the wear and tear of work and parenthood. If ego identity is based on “mother” and the kids leave home, what then? If ego identity is based and work and job titles and you get fired, what then?
It also has to do with ego strength. Ego strength means when the going gets tough the tough gets going. Ego strength means that I may feel like breaking down or lashing out or beating the living daylights out of someone, but I hold back. However, even the strongest have only so much they can take.
In the ancient myths the idea was that chaos always threatened to return at the end of the old year. Yeats said it best: “Things fall apart; the center does not hold….” And sure enough life has a way of wearing out the strongest, and the not so strong, of ego strength and identity and chaos is close at hand.
New Year’s, then, is about the possibility of renewal. It is a symbolic rite of passage from the old into the new, which is a way of saying that in spite of everything, I am still here. In spite of all the chaos, something more than chaos triumphs. The renewal is the renewal of a sense of self and a sense of hope.
So much of what we focus on in psychology is the past. New Year’s is a way of saying that for all of what happened in the past, renewal is possible. It is amazing, and in the long run inexplicable; but people do triumph over the old year and over all the old years.
It has been my privilege as a therapist to see people find renewal time and time again. It is utterly remarkable; in fact, about as remarkable as that fact that in spite of the coldest winter, every single year life is renewed in the green spring. And it happens in people too.
Perhaps that is why New Year’s is the oldest celebration. It is a celebration of the undaunted human spirit. From all of us at VIDA Newspaper, best wishes for a happy, healthy, safe and remarkable New Year 2021.