New Year a holiday with two faces

January 1, 2011   Tom Willadsen

I am of two minds about New Year's. Part of me joins Bono in singing, "Nothing changes on New Year's Day." As a child I remember being very disappointed that January 1, 1972 looked and felt an awful lot like December 31, 1971. What was the big deal about another trip around the Sun?
The other part sees the coming of a new year as a blank slate, a clean layer of fresh snow. A year filled with possibilities and potential. When my older son was two he would wish people a "new, happy year," which somehow sounds much more joyful and full of promise than "Happy New Year."
When I was growing up we had New Year's traditions in my family. We always spent New Year's Eve doing a jigsaw puzzle and listening to the countdown of the year's top pop songs. At midnight I would take my trombone outside and play really, really loudly for all the neighbors to hear. Why? Because I could and it was a new year, and well, it is what some people do on New Year's.
That a new year starts eleven days after the winter solstice is a little strange. I suppose it is a good thing to have a reason to celebrate when the weather is at its coldest and the days their darkest, but aside from turning the page on a calendar what is there to New Year's? It strikes me as arbitrary. Other days feel more like beginnings to me. The first day of school, for example, after a summer of play, marks a sharp difference. A new classroom, new teachers, perhaps a new school, all these make the first Tuesday in September a true New Year's Day. The first day of baseball season is a day of promise and hope for this Cub fan. No runs, no hits, no errors, no broken hearts-yet. At church the year starts four Sundays before Christmas with the season of Advent. We start by getting ready for Christ's birth. Gardeners look for the first bulb to emerge from the ground in the spring. That first tentative, fragile shoot signals a new year.
Starting a new year eight days after celebrating Christ's birth just seems like too much novelty. As a holiday New Year's feels artificial to me.
During the last week of the year I enjoy the mental exercise of thinking what the top ten news stories are going to be. This year I'm pretty sure the midterm elections, the ongoing financial crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will make the AP's list, but what else? The oil spill was certainly big news, and the earthquake in Haiti. Perhaps the ratification of the nuclear missile treaty with Russia is a top news story.
Locally we spent the summer finding new routes to almost every destination in town because there was so much road construction. What other events will make 2010 memorable for Oshkovites?
Another part of me is persuaded by an observation I heard years ago, by a friend whose favorite holiday is New Year's. To her New Year's is the perfect holiday, one cannot lose. If you have had a bad year, celebrate that it is over. If you had a good year, remember the good things that happened and be thankful. What could be simpler?
I am not at all surprised that I am of two minds about New Year's. The calendar is too. January, the first month of the year, is named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. Janus has two faces, one that looks forward and one that looks back. We start our year with a dual mind, and perhaps we always should.
A new year is a chance to make a break from the past. The passing of the old year is a chance to note the milestones, cherish the good moments and move beyond the bad ones that filled the prior year. Be Janus. Look to the past and the future as you begin this new, happy year.

This article was first published in the Oshkosh Northwestern, January 1, 2011.