When I was a child, New Year’s Day was very special. Our family always had a big celebration, complete with a number of rituals.
The rituals began already on New Year’s Eve. We didn’t go out that evening, but stayed in and celebrated together as a family. Everyone stayed up until midnight and, just before twelve, whatever else we were doing was stopped and my father would lead us in a brief prayer.
This prayer never strayed far from a basic theme: My father thanked God for the year that had just passed, for, in the words of his generation, “the graces that we had received.” He thanked God for having protected us, that we were still alive and together in faith and in family. Then he would, very simply, ask for God’s blessing and protection for the coming year. Finally, exactly at midnight, when the old year ended and the new one began, we would sing together the hymn, Holy God We Praise Thy Name. After this there would follow the “Happy New Year” greetings, the hugs, handshakes, drinks and the food.
New Year’s Day, itself, was, after church, given up mostly to visiting and receiving friends. At the door of each house, everyone was expected to greet each other with a formal New Year’s greeting (about 10 lines in length, in German) that had to be memorized and recited, even if you no longer knew German. After this ritual greeting, you were given food, a drink, sweets, and (if you were a child) some money. When you finally completed the round of houses and returned home, you were loaded with treats and money and so, of course, as a child this was a day that rivaled Christmas.
My parents have now been dead for over 36 years. Within those 36 years most of these rituals have died. Mobility, the death of most of my parents’ generation, the breakdown of the immigrant sociology of our district, and the natural changes that the passing of time brings, has made for an almost altogether new situation in our old district and in the world at large. Few persons still do the old rituals, and the heart has gone out of them. About the only real continuity lies with the drinks, that ritual survives the changes of time and the breakdown of any sociology. My own family has regrouped around new rituals, but the description and prescription of these is not my purpose here since this is reminiscence, not a homily.
As I get older, what I remember most about those New Year’s celebrations, what lies inside of me as a set of sturdy roots that I use to steady myself and to draw a certain sustenance from, is that New Year’s Eve prayer by my dad at midnight and the singing of Holy God We Praise Thy Name. Our new rituals still include that.
Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That could be recast to say: A blessing that is unasked for, unrecognized, and for which thanks is not given, is at best only a half-blessing.
When my father prayed his end-of-the-year prayer in which he thanked God that we were all still alive and within which he asked for God’s providence and protection for the coming year, Socrates would have been proud. My father was not living the unexamined life, nor was he neglecting Christ’s request that we ask for blessings and the Holy Spirit.
The end of one year and the beginning of a new year are a naturally reflective time. Anthropology wonderfully conspires with spirituality in almost forcibly highlighting a significant transition. Our society rightly makes a big deal out of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
If you come to the end of a year and are still alive, then you haven’t had a bad year. If you are still within the family of faith, then you’ve had a good year, irrespective of personal sickness, economic misfortune, lost relationships, or any other tragedy. Moreover, if there’s gratitude in your heart and you can ask God for providence and protection for the coming year, you’ve entered that year on the right note. If you can follow this by expressing sincere love and best wishes for those around you (the words and embraces that say “Happy New Year”) well, that’s all a human being can do to welcome a new year properly.
2008, I suspect, was for all of us a year of mixed blessing. It had its cold bitter moments and more than enough heartaches and headaches. But, for all of us too, I am sure, it had its joys and its newness, its extraordinary blessings and providence. Each of us, in our more lucid moments, knows exactly how many bullets we dodged. If we are still alive and we still have faith, it was a good year. It deserves to be celebrated with expressions of gratitude, affection, and a doxology… and even with another old ritual, drinks!