As a child growing up, New Year’s Day always stood out as one of the biggest days of the year. 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, we stayed in and celebrated together as a family. Everyone stayed up until midnight and, just before 12, 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: He 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 would follow the “Happy New Year” greetings, the kisses, handshakes, drinks and food.
New Year’s Day itself was, after church, given up entirely to visiting and receiving friends. Here there was 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, at the door of each person’s house as you arrived. And at each house, after this ritual greeting (called Wunschend), 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 20 years. Within those 20 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, have made for an almost altogether new situation in our old district and in the world at large.
A few persons still do the old rituals, but 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. This is a reminiscence, not a homily.
As I get older, what I remember most about those New Year’s celebrations, what lies inside of me as roots which I can use to steady myself and to draw a certain sustenance from, is that New Year’s Eve prayer by my dad and that midnight singing of Holy God We Praise Thy Name.
Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That could be recast to say: “A blessing which is unasked for, unrecognized, and for which thanks is not given, is at best only a half-blessing.”
When my dad 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 dad was not living the unexamined life, nor was he neglecting Christ’s request that we ask for the Holy Spirit.
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 very 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 kisses and embraces that say “Happy New Year”), well, that’s all a human being can do to welcome a New Year properly.
The year 1991, I am sure, 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, know 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!