It’s mid-morning on the first day of the new year. I’m sitting in my living room, which is still scattered with gift wrapping, almost-stale cookies, and boxes of holiday decorations. My life hasn’t changed much since yesterday, aside from the vaguely shameful memory of going to bed at 10:30 after a night of card games and seltzer.
Something feels different, though. The rural New England scenery outside my window has been whitewashed and transformed into a clean and spartan tundra. I have a new calendar to put up on the wall and a new year to get used to writing on checks and paperwork. I might even make a New Year’s resolution.
Despite this arbitrary change in dates, I get the sense that I’m starting again with a clean slate, even if only in a small way. Things may functionally be the same, but I can’t shake the sense of newness that comes with the new year.
Maybe this year really will be better than the last.
This feeling is probably familiar to those who also celebrate this annual holiday. The “out with the old, in with the new” essence of the new year permeates a multitude of cultural practices, both ancient and modern. They’re ubiquitous, but what do they really mean? Do our New Year’s traditions have a deeper significance, and are they still relevant in 2018?
Diverse traditions, common themes
If you think that putting on a shiny paper hat, staying up until midnight drinking champagne, and vowing to live a healthier life the very next day is a strange set of customs, then you’ll likely be perplexed and entertained by the myriad ways in which people around the world celebrate the transition from one year to the next.
You might also notice some recurring themes. Concepts of destruction and banishment, especially when pertaining to things that are old or potentially nefarious, are found all over the world: lighting bonfires in Iceland, burning scarecrows in Ecuador, smashing glass or plates in Denmark, and making loud noises to banish evil spirits in Thailand and China.
On the flip side, renewal and fresh starts are also frequently featured, as are ritual acts that ensure health, wealth, and happiness for loved ones in the new year. Scottish neighbors engage in “first-footing,” Swiss families plop whipped cream on the floor to bring richness in the coming year, and in Bolivia coins are baked into a cake to encourage prosperity for all.
Whatever the custom, one notion seems to persist: the idea that small, ritualistic actions can have an impact on our lives if they are done at just the right time. It’s as if there’s a unique, liminal space that appears between the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Take advantage of it, and you can tweak the way your life unfolds in the months to come.
2017 was quite a year
Does a good old dose of banishment and cleansing sound good to you at this point? You’re not alone. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Americans were traumatized by the events and trends of the past year—in politics, in our everyday lives, and in the environment. Record levels of stress and burnout left us frazzled and disillusioned.
It’s at these times of overwhelm when small things like a one-day work holiday or a quaint yearly ritual might seem insignificant. It’s possible, though, that these deeply-rooted cultural institutions marking the passing of time are something we can hold on to and use to create a space for renewal.
We’re already grasping for it. Last year, Americans intensified their quest for wellness, stress relief, and perhaps a tiny morsel of hope. Regardless of the format—workplace yoga, forest bathing, Mindful Resistance, or activist support groups—we’ve been seeking out ways to offset the struggles of living in a time when the word “apocalyptic” doesn’t evoke the same sense of hyperbole as it once did.
While self-care is vitally important, we can’t escape the realities of the 21st century. So, what do we do now that we’ve been given a whole new year to work with?
Embracing the illusion of the fresh start
Regardless of where it comes from, the urge to begin again is necessary for our well-being, both as individual people and as a species. It’s easy to become numb, depressed, or overwhelmed these days, but burning out won’t help us find solutions. We need to feel refreshed from time to time. We need to wipe the slate clean, even if only ritualistically or metaphorically.
Here’s where those time-oriented rituals and superstitions come into the picture. A surprising number of us still engage in them. According to one statistic, roughly 41% of Americans say they usually make a New Year’s resolution, even if only a fraction of them keep their word throughout the year.
Psychologists and social scientists have found that rituals can have a real impact on our lives, which is a factor in why they’ve endured for so long. Still a skeptic? Not to worry, it’s been shown that “rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work.” (Scientific American)
What seems to boost a ritual’s effectiveness is the level of specificity we ascribe to it, both in the time it occurs and in the steps we take to practice it. For example: celebrating the new year at a very specific time and with very specific acts (remember that whipped-cream-plopping?). Here in the US it happens at exactly midnight—down to the second—in between December 31st and January 1st.
So, indulge in a little ritual for the new year if you haven’t already. You can even choose a different day—perhaps Groundhog Day (February 2) or the first day of spring (March 20 here in the Northern Hemisphere). Bring in some symbols that evoke a sense of new beginnings, freshness, or change.
Your ultimate purpose can be anything: creating a new habit, re-energizing yourself for a year of political change-making, or leaving some burdens behind. What matters is that you create the time and space to both reflect and look forward. Essentially, you’re taking a mini-vacation from time.
In the end, we may or may not stick with the plans we make for 2018. We may feel reinvigorated for a few days, weeks, or months, and then find ourselves back in the land of stagnation. That’s okay. The beautiful thing about rituals is that you can do them again when you need to. They aren’t a magic bullet, but they can help break a cycle or give us a moment to pause. And we could use a few more pauses right now.