The festival of New Year awakens us to the changing seasons. The days are longer; the sun rises higher in the southern sky, inching its way north. In an ordinary year, the cold would strengthen, then give way to thaw, before settling back in for the duration of the winter. This year, cold spells have been brief, and thaw has dominated.
The institution of the New Year Festival is widespread in human cultures. In Europe, and throughout much of Native North America, the festival occurs on or shortly after the Winter Solstice. The festival marks the quiet time of deep winter. It is a time of ceremony, play, and feasting before the potential cold and hunger of later winter. New Years’ acknowledges the past, pays homage to the Ancestors, and looks forward to the return of warmth, and the restoration of abundance.
The New Years’ season is complex, mixed in tone. New Year’s Eve and Day are times of celebration and excess. Yet the days immediately before New Years’ are more somber. December 28th marks Holy Innocents’ Day in the Christian calendar. (Philip Lowe Jr. wrote about this in a recent post.) This feast day marks the mass murder by the Romans of Jewish male children. The story goes thus: Herod was warned by his astrologers that a new king had been born to the Jews, a king who would lead his people out of Roman oppression. Herod responded to this perceived threat by ordering the murder of all male Jews under the age of two living in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus, in the Christian tradition, offered hope for change and renewal; acts of genocide steal hope from the people.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Holy Innocents’ falls in that space between the birth of Jesus and the turn of the New Year. For people in the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, winter has traditionally been a time of challenge and hunger. Winter was particularly brutal on young children and elders.
As is true for all good stories, the story of the Holy Innocents is rich with additional meanings. One such resonance is the survivance of hope, even in the face of genocide. Another story, lost to much of North American culture, is the massacre of between 150-300 Lakota Sioux (mostly women, children and the elderly) at Wounded Knee, on December 29th, 1890 (see this recent post from the Ella Baker Center) . The massacre occurred in response to the spread of the Ghost Dance, a messianic ceremony (some say religion) that allowed Native Americans to directly contact our Ancestors, and provided hope in the face of ongoing genocide. Although colonialism continues to threaten all we hold sacred, both internally and externally, each year Holy Innocents’ and Wounded Knee remind us we are, against all odds, “Still Here.” (I am grateful to John Ahniwanika Schertow for his efforts to keep us informed about the struggles of Indigenous people around the world.)
New Years invites us to remember and appreciate those who have gone before, and to look to the future and those who will follow. We are reminded we are bridges between the generations, and stewards of the future. We are asked to rekindle and nurture the fire of hope, and to remember that we are, in spite of whatever travail that we have passed through in our lives, still here.