Why do so many cultures observe New Year’s Day with such fanfare? The mundaneness accentuates the forgotten origins of the holiday. In more northern latitudes New Year’s Day is in the thick of earliest winter, coming on the heels of the winter solstice, suggesting a seasonal origin.
But January first is not what is apparently universal about New Year’s Day. For the ancient Celts New Year’s Day was November first, which as a pastoral people signified the coming of cold when the animals could now long find pasture. The Chinese New Year is famously dated as the first day after the new moon of February, meaning the first day of spring. This latter practice exemplifies the seasonal character of optimism in the return of warmth, sunlight, long days, and renewed life.
Seasonal optimism was not a passive observation or mere hope. The return of spring involved appropriate propitiation, the sacrificial death of what anthropologist James Frazer called a “worshipful animal,” be it a wren, a boar, a goat, a pig, or a dog, as cultures universally marked a scapegoat to be driven into the deathly cold, or slain there before the assembled villagers. Thus New Year’s Day was the original and universal Day of Atonement.
The literalness of scapegoating can be seen in early modern Eastern Europe, where the overlay of Christian holidays and the urgency of midwinter propitiation blur ominously. The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany were called the Witching Days or the Witching Time. During these days, witches and their protective female spirits must be driven from forests and fields, from every nook and cranny of the land and villages in order to assure good fortune for the coming year. Not merely prayers and exorcisms would accomplish this but the people took to torchlight processions, great bonfires, and, above all, noise: bells, horns, drums, kettles, and later shots ringing in the air.
Do we not have in the Witching Time an exemplar of today’s New Year’s Eve celebrations?
In medieval and later Japan, a custom among poets was to pen the year’s first poem, a New Year’s Day haiku, quietly mocked by the 18th century poet Buson:
New Year’s first poem
written — now self-satisfied,
O haiku poet!
Other poets, too, applied a reduction to seasonal images to dispel society’s aggrandizement of the first day of the year. Kikaku and Ransetsu reflectively observe birds; Issa observes the sky.
New Year’s dawn —
quietly the cranes
pace up and down.
New Year’s Day —
clear dawn, sparrows
New Year’s Day here —
sky deep blue.
We leave to haiku master Basho a restoration not only of seasonal imagery to this calendar day but also emotional sensibility essential to the interpretation of the passage of time and the panoply of nature. Basho, the oft-hermit, best captures the seasonal and intuitive characteristic of the day.
New Year’s Day —
each thought a loneliness
as winter dusk descends.