Let Christmas Set the Tone for the Year
Our calendar New Year, January 1, is New Year’s Day because of the Romans. The calendar most commonly used in the world today is called the Gregorian calendar, which is a slight refinement of the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar, in turn, is a more serious refinement of the old Roman calendar. Ultimately, the selection of January 1 as the beginning of the New Year is more or less arbitrary, though it is approximately connected to the Winter Solstice (Summer Solstice for those of you south of the equator). The exact reason why January 1 takes place when it does either is lost to us in the mists of time or else is to be regarded as entirely circumstantial.
Nothing in all that is particularly inspiring or meaningful, and the more I reflect on it the more it seems to me that our projection of “New Beginnings” significance on January 1 is at best little more than wishful thinking. At the worst, for the Christian, it can seem overly connected to the solar cycle without any compelling motivation within salvation history. My own attitude has for a long time been, “Meh. What’s the big deal? Cool fireworks, though.”
Now, I am not arguing that we change our calendar. The bland neutrality of January 1 is actually a great benefit of the Gregorian calendar as an international (and inter-cultural) calendar. For the purpose of trade and communication we can have a calendar and a New Year that, though it emerged from Christian Europe, is about as scientifically accurate a calendar as humans have ever had (or could realistically hope for) and is not subject to political manipulation (as the old Roman calendar was).
Nevertheless, we humans are somehow programmed to look for theme days and inflection points in our experience of time. We want, even need, there to be beginnings and endings rather than featureless eternity. Unchanging eternity as a feature of our future in “Heaven” actually deeply disturbed me as a child and youth, feeling to me like falling endlessly through empty space with nothing to grab onto, and it is one of the chief things that drove me into the Bible to seek out a more thoroughly biblical picture of our hope in the New Heavens and New Earth. I don’t think I’m alone in that. A friend of mine wrote a short story where he described Hell not as a lake of fire or place of endless torment but as a vast, featureless and unchanging plain under a grey, cloudless sky whose ground material left no record of one’s passage. Imagine living eternity alone in such an environment and see if you don’t snap back to reality with a shudder. We need features, places and moments to distinguish what came before from what comes after. Our lives are bounded on one side by our earliest memories and on the other by the inescapability of death (even if death turns out to be just a transition point to a new kind of existence, it is the end of existence as we have always known it). And it is precisely those boundaries that give our lives form and meaning.
We also long for fresh starts. Sometimes, you just need to stop whatever you’re struggling with, take a deep breath, and start again. Maybe you lost the battle. Chances are it wasn’t entirely lost, but it might feel like it was. Regardless, sometimes you just need to have a moment in time to regain your bearings and then go at life with a new perspective and a new theme. Let me suggest that the season of Advent and Christmas is a far better time for Christians to do that than January 1.
For Christians whose are accustomed to some kind of liturgical calendar, you have likely long known that the Christian calendar does not start on January 1. The only thing that may distinguish January 1 is the Feast of the Circumcision, a relatively minor observance based on Luke 2:21 that remembers the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day, that is one week after his birth. But the significance of January 1, in this case, is derived from the celebration of Christmas, not the other way around. January 1 has no inherent significance in the Christian calendar. Instead, different Christian traditions consider the year to have begun at different times in the year.
Since the liturgical year largely revolves around the events of the life of Jesus, the celebration of his birth naturally falls at its beginning. In the West, this means the season of Advent, which is the season of the expectation of the coming of the Messiah, is the first season of the year. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the events of Jesus’ life are bookended by the birth and death of Mary the mother of Jesus, so the liturgical year begins on September 1 rather than December 1. Even so, in either case, Christmas is kind of the climax of the beginning of the year, not the end of the year.
So now (finally) I come to my point. Particularly for Christians who were not raised with a liturgical calendar, we should let Christmas have its place not as the end of our year, like a kind of dessert before we go to bed, but as the thematic beginning of our year, a healthy and well balanced breakfast with a small shot of caffeine that raises our mood in the morning and sets the tone for the day. Starting your year on personal willpower and good intentions on January 1 is more like beginning your day with a can of soda and a cigarette.
Christmas begins the year meaningfully and in the proper perspective: new beginnings are here not because you have decided that it is so, but because God has decided that it is so and has sent Jesus to make all things new. Your success this year isn’t dependent on your ability to defy all creation and make it happen. That kind of attitude has more in common with Nietzsche than the Bible, and unless you have enough money to give you the upper hand, it is almost certainly going to end in disappointment. But realize that in Jesus, whose coming we have just celebrated (or are in the midst of celebrating, in many Christian traditions), the Kingdom of God is here. The joy, hope, and peace of Christmas isn’t really simply the spirit of Christmas. It is a brief, tantalizing glimpse of the glory of the Kingdom of God. And the awesome thing is that because it is the Kingdom of God and not some humanistic “Holiday Spirit”, not only is it possible to experience it during the Christmas season when that season is observed in an attitude of worship, it is possible, it is to be expected to experience it all year long, because the Kingdom of God is here. We have it in the Messiah, Jesus.
So I encourage you to let Christmas set the tone for your new year. If you want to make resolutions (like learning Hebrew and Greek, perhaps?), great! But make those resolutions not on the power of your good intentions and willpower. Make them in light of the currently reigning King Jesus, whose Kingdom is without end.