January takes its name from Janus, the old Roman god of gates, doorways, and thresholds. Depictions of Janus show two faces looking in opposite directions; past and future, old and new, outer darkness and inner light. As ruler of all endings and beginnings, Janus was invoked at the onset of any change in the course of life. Janus was especially present at the end of the calendar, in the long, dark nights that give birth to each New Year.
January begins in the threshold of time formed by the old year dying and the new one being born, in the timeless moment through which time itself becomes renewed. People instinctively kiss each other in that moment; friends hold each other close and even strangers hug one another as if to embrace the mystery of renewal and the return of light and life when darkness seems about to overwhelm the world.
People also act up and act out as if extremes of behavior must also be embraced, as if life’s excesses are not just allowed at this time, but are also somehow required. In order for time to start anew some chaos is necessary. Chaos and darkness were there at the very beginning and each true beginning must touch chaos again. The world has to be symbolically dissolved before it can be created anew.
Ancient people would act out the presence of chaos by disrupting common patterns or breaking the usual rules. They would reverse the common social order so that those at the bottom would rule for a time before order could be reestablished. Even now, New Year’s Eve brings disorder and unruliness as wild parties, loud music and spirited dancing spontaneously reflect the old idea that chaos must reign before any renewal can occur. Fire crackers, noise-makers, and drunken singing of partially remembered songs also represent the chaos that necessarily precedes the renewal of time’s orderly march.
Excessive consumption of alcohol unconsciously references the dissolution of the world in the primal waters from which life first arose. New Year’s Eve is a ritual of renewal disguised as a social event. Even the parade of “bowl games” that surround the first day of the year derive from ancient contests representing the heroic struggle between darkness and light at the time of the shortest days and longest nights.
The closer the battle the greater the victory, for life must be snatched from the brink of death and edge of annihilation. The winner with the “game ball” represents the world itself that has won the chance to “play another day” and live another year. New Year’s Day is a renewal ceremony disguised as a sports event.
The opposite faces of Janus appear in modern rituals of reviewing the past and predicting what the New Year might bring. Naming the “top story of the year,” composing lists of the best films and “counting down” the greatest songs of all time reflect the backward glance of Janus. Meanwhile, New Year resolutions, earnest promises to improve one’s life, and hopes that the future might bring more peace and prosperity reflect the forward facing side of the god and the spirit of beginning everything anew. New Year’s is an annual rite of passage that renews the entire planet and secretly touches each person living on it.
In the old custom of “first footing,” neighbors and friends went visiting after midnight. They brought simple gifts or a song to each person’s door so that the first thing crossing the doorway of each home in the New Year would be life enhancing. Quarrels were avoided and differences were minimized in order that everyone might participate in the magic and mystery of the light returning and time renewing itself from the ashes of the past.
The annual ritual of end and beginning has come round again and the ashes are piled high throughout the landscape. For these are not only the dark days of the waning year, they are also the dark times as more and more people have “fallen on hard times.” Deep financial troubles and political foolishness have made the growing gap between those who have too much and those who have too little painfully evident. Amidst the hardening of hearts and narrowing of minds that increasingly pass for public policy, the deeper sense of justice and the instinct for human relatedness seem but dim lights amidst the growing chaos. Blind self-interest, the spread of fear and threat of conflict seem about to overwhelm everything.
Yet, like the sun inexorably returning from the darkest point of the year, something life enhancing and meaningful inside each person and each culture remains capable of renewal. Whether it takes the form of a menorah or an evergreen tree with lights, a crackling bonfire or the flame of a single candle, people are naturally drawn to assist the return of the light from the depths of darkness. Something deep in the heart and unaffected by time wants to help the sun return and warm both body and soul. Regardless of what people might call the holidays, they represent a necessary break in time and a needed interruption of the blindness of business as usual and politics at its worst.
Holidays began as holy days and holiness means both “to bring health” and “to make things whole” again. The essence of all holy days involves stopping time in order to learn anew that life itself is sacred and that we each play a part in the ongoing mystery of the world unfolding. The world renews itself all the time in the secrecy of forests, but also in the hearts of those who commit fully to life. Even chaotic events contribute to the wholeness of things if people can be open-minded and open-hearted. Whether it is the dark of the year or the darkest time of one’s life, renewal remains a possibility.
The ancient Celts would put all fires out to make the darkness more evident and the cold shoulder of life more present. Then, they would relight all fires from the same flame so that the highest and the lowest were secretly connected on the inside, where each hearth and each heart share a common flame. They would set bonfires on hill tops to remind each other of the capacity of life’s flame to renew itself even in the darkest times. And, people would jump over the blaze in order to catch the flame of life and land breathlessly on the ground of the New Year.
The confusion and uncertainty of this New Year’s Eve will usher in the year 2012 in the modern calendar. Being a “leap year” it is bound to bring some surprising events. Many see it primarily as an “election year” sure to be heavy with political posturing and over-heated promises that will not be kept. Others believe it to be the year in which the world might end, either through misunderstanding the nature of the Mayan calendar or else feeling that a nuclear war or world-wide natural disaster has become inevitable.
Certain rites of passage require that everything must first seem upside down, completely backwards or devoid of meaning before another leap into the unknown can ignite the dance of life again. Amidst undefined uprisings and growing imbalances there is no question that the hard times will continue for people of all kinds. Yet, there are moments amidst the darkness when the underlying longings for life and for love and the deep sense of justice and beauty seek to rise to the surface of life. There are moments outside of time when it makes the most sense to break time open, to pull friends and loved ones close or embrace strangers, to let go of all the darkness and uncertainty, to take a leap of imagination and cast all your votes for dancing and help the great dance of life begin again.