Happy New Year

January 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t generally care for the televised versions of celebrations. Even on a forty-inch, high-density TV, the Tournament of Roses or the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade or New Year’s Eve in Times Square leave me cold. The whole idea of a celebration is to be a participant not a spectator, to feel the energy of the crowd surging through your own body. And you can’t do that from thousands of miles away sitting on a couch with the remote in one hand even if you have a glass of champagne in the other and a silly hat on your head.

But Sunday night as I watched the TV screen in a quiet Florida condo, there was one moment that got to me — a quick montage of celebrations in cities further east that had already rung in 2007: Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Seoul, etc. Durkheim was right about rituals: they reinforce the feeling of commonality, of sharing. He was also right that rituals define a group. If you’re part of the group, you participate; or maybe it’s more accurate the other way round: if you participate, you’re part of the group.

In some cases, this group-defining function of rituals sharpens differences among us. It’s at the root of the “war on Christmas” flap, with people like Bill O’Reilly ranting about the secularization of Christmas and the evils of saying “Happy Holdiays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Whose ritual is this anyway? If it’s a Christian ritual, non-Christians are excluded. If it’s a more inclusive American ritual, the Christ-centered religious elements have to be muted. (Of course, some extremists want it both ways, so that Christmas is a national holiday and yet still very Christian, a designation that would promote their definition of the US as a “Christian nation.”)

New Year’s is the only holiday I can think of that draws no such boundaries between groups. As one of my students put it, it’s the Earth’s birthday. So everyone who lives on this planet is part of it. We celebrate locally, but the images from around the world prod us to think globally.

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