The Roles of the New Year

This year more than most, I’ve thought about the role of the New Year in our lives and culture. I’ve thought about it with all of the “So long, 2013! You sucked!” comments on my Twitter feed, and feeling like they’re no different in volume or message that those in years past. And I’ve thought about it with people who post New Years resolutions, or New Years non-resolutions that still have some weight of renewal.

The point is, New Years matters a considerable deal to us as a culture, in a way I think far greater than most of realize. It’s a time when we psychologically expunge the sins and trials of the recent past. We seek for “fresh starts,” times when we’re effectively allowed to attempt new feats on our own without the baggage of prior failures (or even strange or mitigated successes). It’s a time of strange hope, if for no other reason that the collective culture wishes for there to be a sense of hope during this time. Even those of us who eschew the idea of the “resolution” hold something toward the New Year — I look at it as a time of hope and focus, personally.

It’s likewise a time of reflection, though people hold to this idea to different degrees. You see so many people post thoughts on their 2013, and that’s because this time of all times is meant to elicit that impulse in all of us. That’s all part of the psychological purge.

It’s also a time of unity. In the multi-religious and secular Western world, we largely celebrate New Years together. Even if we’re alone in our homes, the Internet unifies a sense of cheer and tiding to a greater degree than even Christmas, for Christmas is not culturally the time of psychological expunging. (Perhaps it would be, if it was not so close to New Years.)

Of course, the Gregorian calendar is not the only one, and there are cultures that hold the time of transition differently — yet they still hold it. I’m thinking on Yom Kippur, which is some days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, where you seek forgiveness from those you’ve wronged in the past year. Some people also do this with the Gregorian New Year, though it’s not as universal as the collective sense of renewal — however, it’s interesting (at least to me) to note that in Judaism, the idea of renewal and the idea of atonement at the beginning of the year are on separate days.

Now, there are naysayers who complain that people shouldn’t bother with New Years resolutions, partly because so many people fail at them, and partly because there’s a sense of cynicism revolving around waiting for this time of year to make a life change. Those people don’t respect the cultural weight and sense of support that we loan each other, at least for a couple weeks. Those people don’t respect that the point of New Years isn’t solely individual. And I would hold that those people don’t engage in the collective hope this time brings.

I bring all this up to say: when you’re world-building, what holidays do you have? What cultural role to they serve?

Also, reflect back on how the New Year affects your mindset. It made me think about what I hope for, and what I want to do better this year than I did last. (I’m also getting married later this year, so perhaps I feel it even more acutely than normal.)

– Ryan