Five New Year’s Renewal Rituals
Across human cultures, great seasonal changes and transitions are marked by ceremonies. For those of us who live in industrialized societies where many people have lost our connection to the land, it can be easy to overlook the importance of natural cycles of renewal. But their role was certainly not lost on our ancestors, who depended on these cycles for their survival and sustenance.
IIn agrarian societies, a long winter could pose an existential threat, and the first signs of spring brought hope and renewal. It is no wonder then that so many cultures maintain grandiose spring festivals or that many of these festivals mark the start of the new year in their cultures. But even though nature regenerates itself every year, crops are still susceptible to calamities such as droughts, floods or disease. In many places, therefore, the New Year began with the harvest, when the bounty of the Earth provided some material security for the months to come.
NOTRegardless of when they take place, these ceremonies do more than just mark calendar time: they perform important functions for individuals and their societies. Anthropologists have noted that rituals provide a sense of regularity that helps practitioners cope with anxiety. By coming together to implement them collectively, the participants experience a feeling of community, an emotional communion that the sociologist Ãmile Durkheim has qualified as âcollective effervescenceâ. And even if such festive rituals, in their exuberance, often seem to call into question the social order, they ultimately serve to reaffirm it. By creating symbolic thresholds, they allow people to leave the past behind and have hope for the future.
AAs these five examples show, the rich symbolism of the seasonal celebrations reflects their long-standing importance to many communities around the world.
1. MuÃ±ecos de AÃ±o Viejo
IIn many parts of the Spanish-speaking Americas, people seem so eager to leave the old year behind that they set it on fire. In the last days of December, they build life-size effigies (muÃ±ecos) from flammable materials such as paper, straw and sawdust, and dress them in real clothes. For good measure, they can also blend in with gunpowder or fill the effigies with fireworks.
Tthe pipe figures represent the old year and all the harm it could have brought. Many of them represent famous politicians or villains, like the biblical Judas. Others are more personal, representing a personal enemy or aggressor. And some pay homage to individuals who perished in the previous year.
ohn On New Year’s Eve, people take their effigies down to the streets. When the clock strikes midnight, they soak them in gasoline and set them on fire carefully before running away. From a safe distance, they watch them explode and burn to the ground in a symbolic attempt to exorcise bad memories and welcome new beginnings.
AAt the end of 2020, one of the most popular effigies was the coronavirus. The ceremonial burning of these anthropomorphic effigies with their prickly heads and wicked faces has become a symbolic expression of the collective desire to turn a new leaf, leaving behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Kha b Nisan
ohObserved on April 1 by people of Assyrian descent in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, Kha b-Nisan is a springtime ritual that originates from Akitu, one of the New Year’s celebrations. the oldest in the world. With roots stretching back over four millennia to the city of Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, the Akitu have marked the annual barley sowing with a spectacular public celebration.
IIn its old form, this 12-day festival involved carnival festivals and dances, religious processions, animal sacrifices and recitations of the Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma elish. The festivities were attended by the high priest and the king. The two of them adopted a rather peculiar ritual: the priest stripped the king of his insignia, slapped him in the face, dragged him by the ear and forced him to kneel in front of the statue. of the great god Marduk. After pledging allegiance to the deity, the king could recover his insignia and be reinstated by the priest. Thus, the Akitu played a dual role, symbolizing the revival of the land and the renewal of the king’s divine mandate to rule over it.
The contemporary version of this festival is often referred to as Kha b-Nisan, which means the first day of the month Nisan. While not slapping political leaders in the face anymore, it still lasts 12 days and in many ways resembles its old form. In recent decades, Assyrian intellectuals have emphasized these links as evidence of the historical continuity between contemporary and ancient Assyrian culture.
AAlso known as the Water Festival, Songkran marks the beginning of the Buddhist calendar in Thailand. Word songkran itself, derived from Sanskrit, means “astrological transition” and celebrates the passage of the solar year on April 13. Although Thailand’s New Years officially falls on January 1 today, the three-day festival remains the most culturally significant annual ritual of renewal in the countryside. In fact, in 2018, the Thai government extended the holiday period by an additional two days so that citizens would have more time to visit their families for the celebrations.
TThe festivities begin with spring cleaning of homes, schools and public spaces, and various âmeritâ activities aimed at purifying the soul and creating good karma, such as honoring ancestors, offering food to monks and free captive birds and fish. People also visit temples, where they pour water on Buddha statues, symbolically washing away their sins and bad luck. This water is then collected and sprinkled on the elderly family members as a blessing.
TOver the centuries, this symbolic act of purification has taken on a much more extravagant and playful form. Today millions of people flood the streets, both metaphorically and literally, as they grab buckets, water guns and hoses to soak passers-by with water.
In Aotearoa (now New Zealand), indigenous Maori people celebrated the start of the lunar year with the first rising of Matariki. Also known as the Pleiades, this star cluster plays an important role in many cosmologies around the world. Its annual appearance in late June or early July marks the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere.
By coming together to perform rituals, the participants experience an emotional communion that the sociologist Ãmile Durkheim has described as âcollective effervescenceâ.
With the advent of European colonization, this custom, along with most of the traditional astronomical knowledge, practically died out. But thanks to oral histories transmitted in myths, songs and stories, it has survived in collective memory. According to traditional knowledge, on this auspicious day, people celebrated the cycle of life and death. Special ceremonies were held to honor those who had been lost since the last rising of the constellation and to facilitate their spirits’ journey to the heavens. Then the mourning was followed by the feast. People thanked the gods for the harvest and gathered to feast, sing and share stories. Divination rituals were also performed: based on the timing and the starlight, religious experts made predictions about the success of the next harvest.
It over the past decades, the Maori have recuperated and revitalized these celebrations. Today they meet again on Matariki to observe the stars, fly kites and observe a day of remembrance, celebration and hope. With a recent Act of Parliament, Matariki will be celebrated in 2022 as a public holiday in New Zealand. So, in addition to celebrating the renewal of nature, it can also be said that Matariki symbolizes the renewal of Maori culture.
IIn agrarian societies, the harvest is a time of rejoicing. Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is observed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists in India and around the world. Based on the Hindu lunisolar calendar, Diwali is between mid-October and mid-November, and in various parts of India it signifies the arrival of the new year. Falling on the darkest night of the year, it celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and hope over despair.
Diwali comes at the end of the monsoon season, a period of bounty that waters the rice fields, replenishes the aquifers and feeds the cows. To celebrate the end of this season during the festival, people clean their homes, then light them up and decorate them with clay oil lamps (diyas) and rangoli, geometric patterns made of colored sands, powders, rice, stones and flowers. After the elaborate decorations are completed, the windows are left open to welcome Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, or other household deities. In the streets, observers dress in their best clothes and light sparklers and firecrackers to scare off evil spirits.
LLike most customs of pluralistic Indian society, Diwali takes on a myriad of local forms and variations. But for everyone, it provides an opportunity for human connection. During its five-day span, people visit families, exchange gifts, send greeting cards, and share candy and other festive foods.
RThe itualities of renewal have existed since the dawn of civilization, but they remain as relevant today as ever. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a stark reminder of the human need for such rituals. In these uncertain times, collective festivities offer people around the world a way to forget about their daily worries, socialize and just have fun. It is no coincidence that in 2021, a year when India was struggling to control the pandemic, the town of Ayodhya in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh hosted one of its New Year’s protests. Most spectacular year of all time. The community came together to light more than 900,000 oil lamps during Diwali, surpassing the previous Guinness World Record and bringing much-needed light and hope.