Why We Really Celebrate New Year’s
by Steven Acker
At one second past midnight tonight the day will change from Monday to Tuesday. This is usually an unremarkable transition of no special significance. But that single second tonight that will mark the end of one year and the beginning of another will be somehow different. That unique tick of the clock that prompts us to celebrate and to reflect, to look back and take stock, to assess the year now gone and resolve to do better in the year ahead, has special significance. Only birthdays, perhaps, are more meaningful to us than New Year’s Day.
So why is the start of the New Year so special and significant? Why is its celebration so common around the world, as it has been for as long as there have been calendars? Is such ubiquitous behavior an inherent instinct in the human heart? Given all the energy and resources we invest not just in the celebration but also in our efforts to make good on a fresh set of resolutions (even though we mostly fail to keep them), there must be some deep-rooted psychological motivation driving us. I believe that the symbolism we attach to this one moment is rooted in one of the most powerful motivators of all—our will to survive.
The celebration rituals we practice are the obvious manifestations of this universal drive. Another year over and here we still are! Time to our raise our glasses and toast to our survival...survival made all the more poignant by the year-end reviews of those who didn’t make it, thus reassuring those of us who did.
But what about our resolutions? Aren’t they about survival, too—living healthier, better, longer? New Year’s resolutions are examples of the universal human desire to have some control over what lies ahead, because the future is so disturbingly unknowable. To counter that worrisome powerlessness, we resolve to diet and exercise, to quit smoking, to start saving. Whether we actually hold to our resolve and make good on these promises doesn’t really matter. It’s our commitment to them, at least for a moment, that gives us the comforting illusion of control over uncertain days to come.
We resolve to treat people better, to make new friends, to pay off debt, and we’ve been doing so throughout history. The Babylonians would return borrowed objects. Jews seek, and offer, forgiveness. The Scots go "first footing," visiting neighbors to wish them well.
It’s all about survival. We are social animals. We depend on others, literally, for our health and safety. By resolving to treat people well we hope in our hearts to be treated well. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is a survival strategy.
Many of us resolve to pray more. That makes sense in terms of survival, too. Pray more and an omnipotent force is more likely to keep you safe. Jews pray at the start of their new year so they might be inscribed in "the Book of Life" for one more year. Death is inescapable, so throughout history we humans have dealt with the fear of it by affiliating with religions that promise a happy ending—eternal life.
The Dutch, for whom the circle is a symbol of success, eat donuts. Greeks bake special Vassilopitta cake with a coin inside, bestowing good luck in the coming year on whoever finds it in his or her slice. The Chinese invented fireworks a millennia ago to chase off evil spirits. The Japanese hold New Year’s Bonenkai, or "forget-the-year parties," to bid farewell to the problems and concerns of the past year and prepare for a better new year. In many cultures, houses are scrubbed to sweep out the bad vibes and make room for better ones. Time to set aside disagreements and misunderstandings and grudges and make peace.
I find it fascinating how common these rituals really are around the world: Fireworks. Good luck rituals. Resolutions to give us the pretense of control over the future. All around the world New Year's is the one moment of the year to consider our weaknesses and how we might minimize our vulnerabilities, to do something—anything—to relieve ourselves of the fear, that feeling of powerlessness in the face of the unsettling unknown…of what lies ahead. These are all globally-shared behaviors that cut across both history and culture—a universal manifestation of our fundamental drive to survive.
So pass the donuts, the Vassilopitta and the grapes, light the fireworks, it’s time to eat drink and be merry. Let us raise our glasses and make this New Year’s toast--"To survival!"