As the snow covered valley slowly lights up from the new born sun, I sit here contemplating life and death, ends and beginnings, old and new, cycles within cycles, wheels within wheels. The words of Semisonic’s song, Closing Time, echo in my memory, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
(Please note that this is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, but the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, which much different associations and implications.)
Many, many holidays that are celebrated can be seen as new years. Samhain marks the end of any possibility of harvest in the British Isles. It truly is the beginning of the dark fallow time of winter, despite most modern calendars proclaiming today as the first day of winter. On that night in Ireland, all lights were extiguished and New Fire was brought to light and heat the houses through the cold Winter. Beltaine marked the rebirth, for spring comes later most places than Imbolc and the US celebration of the Ground Hog, reflecting the much older custom of the serpent emerging in February. Beltaine, an ultimate fertility festival, celebrated the return of life after that long fallow winter.
In the far north of Europe, where harvest comes at Midsummer, Midsummer marked the beginning of the raiding season, when the men went to sea. That ended before the first snows, usually long before the Autumn Equinox. The short summer meant two very short periods, the first for farming, the second for raiding. Planting, growing, and harvest all came within a few months. And raiding didn’t last long before the Norse, the Swedes, and the Danes retreated back to hibernate for the long, dark, cold winter. When you realize how long the nights are that far north and how cold, you see quickly why the Norse end of the world is marked by Winter, not fire, why the fear is that Winter will never end, why the idea of the sun and moon being consumed to no longer light the day makes perfect sense for the end.
The Chinese New Year occurs on January 23rd this year, according to the Western Gregorian calendar, basically a month from now. The New Year always falls on the second New Moon (Dark of the Moon) after the Winter Solstice. Since the Chinese months are lunar based and start on the New Moon, this means the New Year is always the beginning of the second month that starts after the Solstice (unless there’s an extra month that year). On that day, this year of the Rabbit (Rabbit is actually a bad translation, it is the Year of the Hare), a year of compassion (the US didn’t get the message, obviously), creativity, and sensitivity, will give way to the Year of the Dragon, a year of dominance and ambition, of independence and raging passion, of innovation and bravery. Lanterns are lit to celebrate the New Year.
The Hebrew calendar has two New Years, one ecclesiastical, i.e., the religious New Year, and the other secular, i.e., the political New Year. The first lands on the first of Nisan. The Hebrew months begin on the night the first crescent is visible after a New Moon (in contrast to the Islamic calendar that begin when the last crescent vanishes, and Chinese month that begins on the actually Dark Moon, half way between the Hebrew and Islamic; all three have lunar based months). It fall on March 24th this coming year. You’ll note this falls very close to the Vernal Equinox. Nisan always begins the first new crescent after the Equinox. The secular New Year falls on the first Tishrei (the seventh month starting as Nisan), and falls on Septmeber 17th this year. Called Rosh Hashanah, the Head of the Year, this New Year falls right around the Autumn Equinox, just before it this year.
The Islamic New Year begins on the first day of Muharram and is called the Hijri New Year, because it is the day the Hijri calendar started. The Islamic year is purely lunar, so it shifts in relation to the Gegorian calendar we’re used to. The New Year was about a month ago, November 24th, and will be November 14th next year. For Shai Muslims, it is a day of grief, not celebration, as it marks the day of the death of Muhammad’s grandson and his family.
So, does the New Year begin with the death of the old (like Samhain) or the birth of the new (like Beltaine)? Does it begin with the beginning of Winter or its end? The Winter Solstice is both. Each night until this point gets longer and longer, and each day gets shorter. The further north you go, the more apparent this gets. It’s not surprising that in southern Europe, the celebrations in Winter had very little to do with death and rebirth, that the Celts, further north, focused on Samhain and Beltaine, with less focus on the Solstice, but that in the far north, only the Solstice was important. While it was the death of the Old Sun, which had been getting shorter and shorter, it’s also the birth of the New Sun. From this day forward, the days get longer and the nights get shorter. The Solstice is the promise that Winter will end. If the sun doesn’t rise, it’s Ragnarok, and we have winter and darkness for three years with no break for summer.
But the sun did rise, and the day is new, like the phoenix rising from the ashes. “His mercies are new every morning.” So we great the day and great the sun in new life, new light. With the sun, we died last night. With the sun, we were reborn this morning. Let us go forth and not just exist, but live. Make this New Sun, this new life, this new light, count. Go forth and change your world!