Is New Year’s Day a “Christian Holiday”?

It’s hard for me to get too excited about January 1st. I mean, it’s as good an arbitrary point as any to change calendars. So long as we bracket off the fact that — beyond the West — it’s a kind of vestige of colonialism to use that calendar in the first place. So long as we remember that — even in the West — the New Year has begun on this day for only a relatively brief stretch of history.

Rubens, The Annunciation
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Annunciation” – Wikimedia

In the English-speaking world, it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that Jan. 1st replaced March 25th. As I understand it, “Lady Day” made both economic and religious sense as New Year’s. Economic: it was near the beginning of planting season, so it was a logical time for contracts to start within a largely agrarian economy. Religious: March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and told her, “…behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.” In other words, it was one way of marking the Incarnation — God taking flesh as beginning with conception, rather than birth. (So it’s not surprising that Christmas Day also served as New Year’s in some Christian societies.)

Now, I’m perfectly fine that a pluralistic society refrain from using a single religion’s holy day to commence the new year. It’s hard enough as it is to be non-Christian in a country that treats December 25th as a federal holiday.

But for Christians… I think it’s a useful way to train ourselves in alien citizenship (“in this world, but not of it”) to learn to live by two calendars. So today is both secular New Year’s and the Eighth Day of Christmas. No problem.

But unless you’re giving maids-a-milking, Christmas #8 doesn’t mean a whole lot to most western Christians. And if we’re going to complain that the commercialization of Christmas (trees for sale the moment the Halloween display goes down) makes us rush past the reverent waiting of Advent (its first Sunday the liturgical New Year’s Day) into a premature celebration of December 25th, then isn’t it equally dangerous to act like a festival as significant as the Birth of Christ ends the second we start counting down the week until our New Year’s party?

At the same time, it’s more important that we follow the spirit of the liturgical calendar than the letter. So I appreciated Christian Piatt’s post this morning, in which he encouraged readers to frame the holiday

Christian Piattby what we expect and anticipate from New Year’s Day. Yes, the celebrations of New Year’s Eve are, in some ways, just an excuse to indulge ourselves in excessive partying, but they also stand in contrast against the hopes we hold for the following day.

We resolve to ourselves to do better, to be better. We look ahead, plan, dream dreams, make plans, set goals. It’s a time of optimism, a point at which anything is still possible. And although this is a traditionally American sort of optimism, I’d argue it’s also a type of hopeful visioning to which we’re called as followers of Jesus….

We’re still in the midst of Christmastide, headed toward Epiphany, that time in the Christian calendar during which new realities and as-yet-unrealized possibilities are revealed to a world in waiting. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.“

Rivers in the desert? That’s pie in the sky idealism if I’ve ever heard it. But it’s the kind of foolish vision we’re called to embrace, and I invite you to join me in imagining spiritual rivers in the midst of our cultural deserts, overflowing with inspired possibility, for the coming year.

I tend to be a bit more pessimistic of our ability to emerge unscathed from what Jamie Smith calls “cultural liturgies,” but I prefer Piatt’s posture to the those that lead us to indulge thoughtlessly in such rituals or to perch entirely aloof from them.

But even more, I appreciated what I heard last night at our neighborhood Lutheran’s church annual New Year’s Eve service, a worship tradition unknown in my experience of evangelical churches. The sermon used the gospel text on Zacchaeus to unpack what we mean when we “resolve” to do something (upshot: too many American resolutions are self- rather than other-centered), but I was more taken with the Old Testament text, which started and ended:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,11, NRSV)

Whether at the moment when December passes into January or somewhere else, it’s well that we have reminders — coming from the kingdom of God or the kingdom of the world — that every season will pass.

Not into nothingness, but into memory, the recesses of our minds where we’ve been given a “sense of past.” (Support your local historian, folks!)

And simultaneously, into expectation of what is to come, since we’ve been given a “sense of… future,” not left to stumble blindly into each approaching moment. (Here’s Piatt’s “hopeful visioning,” perhaps.)

But above all, if New Year’s is to be a “Christian holiday” — or, at least, a secular holiday that we can redeem for the purposes of Christian formation and witness — then it must start with the knowledge that it is God who makes “everything suitable for its time,” and only He knows fully what has happened (“from the beginning…”) and what lies ahead (“…to the end”).

Happy New Year’s, everyone! But also, Merry Christmas!

3 thoughts on “Is New Year’s Day a “Christian Holiday”?

  1. Chris, I guess we somehow neglected to tell you about the Watch Service always held on Dec 31 evening at my home church, Zion Covenant, in Ellsworth, WI. I remember attending this with my parents many times. I believe it started around 8 PM, but it could’ve been later. It was a combination of hymn singing (what would you like to sing?), a short discussion of a Scripture passage, a lengthy prayer time and a break for pie and coffee. After the break, gathering together again for another hymn or two and prayer that went til midnight. (Not a long prayer if the pastor was skilled at pacing all this.). I’m quite sure this service was held in churches throughout the area, and of many denominations.

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