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In cultures around the world, the New Year brings special traditions. Many of our holiday customs come from the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. In these lands, people celebrated the first few moments of the New Year with family and friends. It was thought that making loud noises would frighten away evil spirits. Thus we inherit the custom of sounding bells, using noisemakers at boisterous parties, and shouting loudly to ring in the New Year. Today, many of us celebrate New Years Day by eating black-eyed peas, which are a symbol of luck, together with ham, which represents prosperity. Cabbage is another popular New Year dish, because its green leaves which remind us of money signify wealth in the New Year.
Not all traditions begin the year on January 1. For example, this year Chinese New Year will begin on February 9. Jewish New Year began on September 15. Asian calendars, unlike the Julian calendar that we use, are based on the cycles of the moon and planets. Their dates are not fixed, but are movable, depending on celestial events.
The Chinese begin their New Year with spectacular celebrations and parades. These traditions are based on bringing luck, prosperity, happiness, and good fortune for the coming year. Thousands of people line city streets, while dragons and lions dance and weave in and out of the onlookers. These sacred animals symbolize longevity and strength, and their heads are said to ward off evil. Firecrackers scare away evil spirits, and people display bright new clothes, and flowers which betoken fertility in the coming year. The first thing Chinese people do to celebrate the New Year is give honor to the family ancestors, then to Deity, after which the younger members of the household honor their living relatives. A pair of tangerines may be given as a symbol of unity and abundant happiness. Noodles are eaten as a symbol of long life. The New Year is a time to cast off old grudges and renew commitments to friendship, so family and friends visit one another during this nine-day festival.
Chinese New Year festivals center around the family. Participants reflect on how they might bring harmony to their relationships. Throughout the celebration, people focus on what they might do to develop good fortune in their lives. Houses are cleaned, debts are paid, and attention is given to goal setting and prosperity.
Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, is a similar time for facing the future and clearing up the past. Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year,” and is a day of judgment and reckoning. However, believers face this day wearing good clothing and with prayer, being certain of God’s mercy. The holiday is celebrated for two days in Israel and elsewhere, beginning at sundown on the first day and ending at sundown on the second.
After evening prayers at the synagogue, worshippers return home for a festive meal with family and friends. Like the Chinese, Jews celebrate with special “omen” foods. They share traditional wine and challah bread, which is shaped like a ladder and represents prayers ascending to heaven. Sometimes it is shaped like a crown, which reminds the people that God is the king of Heaven. The bread is dipped in honey, which represents a sweet New Year. Fish is often served, and celebrants often bring the fish’s head to the head of the family, who prays on the household’s behalf, “May it be your will that we be like the head (leaders) and not like the tail (followers).” Carrots are a popular food, since in Hebrew, gezer (carrot) can also mean decree. So the request is made that God will not allow any evil decree against the Jewish people. One Jewish author suggests that the same principle could be applied in English, so eating celery with raisins in it could represent a desire for a “raise in salary.”
; Like most New Year celebrations around the world, Rosh Hashanah is welcomed with loud noise. The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown in solemn assembly, to remind the faithful of the sacrifice Abraham made in offering Isaac to God. For this reason, the festival is also called “The Feast of Trumpets.” It is a time for self-reflection and asking the question, “What sacrifice can I make for the Lord?” While Rosh Hashanah does have its festive side, Jewish New Year is a time for getting one’s spiritual house in order. Preparing for the New Year means evaluating the past, and making plans for the future. Elul, the last month of the year, is a time for charity, which is one of the commandments of God.
L.L. Peretz tells the story of Rabbi Nemirov, who would vanish every year during the month of Elul. Some said he was in heaven, asking God to bring peace during the coming year, but one villager had doubts about that. So the villager decided to sneak into the rabbi’s house just before dawn and hide under his bed. When the rabbi awoke, he got dressed. He put on his shirt, pants, boots, and tucked his axe into his belt, then headed out the door. The villager followed the rabbi to the woods outside of town. There Nemirov cut down a small tree, chopped it into sticks, tied them in a bundle, and slung it on his back. Under his heavy load, he made his way to a dilapidated shack and knocked at the window.
“Who is there?” asked the frightened, sick woman inside.
“I, Vassil the peasant,” answered the Rabbi, entering the house. “I have wood to sell.”
“I am a poor widow. Where will I get the money?” she asked.
“I’ll lend it to you,” replied the Rabbi.
“How will I pay you back?” asked the woman.
“I will trust you,” said the Rabbi.
The Rabbi put the wood into the oven, kindled the fire, and left without a word.
Now whenever anyone reports that the Rabbi has gone to heaven, the villager only adds quietly, “Heaven? If not higher.”
For most of us, the year begins and ends with parties and overindulgence. It is a last hurrah before we have to go on those diets we resolved to start, or put out that smoldering cigarette. The first thing we do as the calendar turns is kiss somebody or take a drink. We have forgotten the spiritual side to New Year celebrations. Many of us face the new day with fear, but God has a different plan for us. Jeremiah 29:11-14a says, For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD.
This New Year, let’s begin with faith. In the place of revelry, may we find revelation. Instead of making resolutions, may we have a revolution in our thinking, in our traditions, and in our way of life. When we begin the New Year with faith, we are certain to have a future with hope. Beginning in love, we may find ourselves like Rabbi Nemirov—visiting heaven, if not higher.
© 2005 by Greg Smith.
Reprinted with permission