Friday, January 02, 2009

Resolution, Baby! Why New Year's Matters

I flipped my book down on the desk and sighed. Another cancellation. December was a hard month for trainers, and as we lived under the adage "they that don't work don't get paid", it'd been frustrating trying to get my clients into the gym. It wasn't as if I didn't understand the busy nature of the Christmas season. I did. None of that paid the bills however. I glanced over at one of the other trainers taking a break in our small room that served as our workroom or hideout, depending on the day.

"Another one?" He asked.

"Yup. Can't wait until January when the 'resolution babies' come in."

He nodded and smiled.

"It'll be all you can handle, bro."

I knew that he was right. January was the time when most people who hadn't thought about being fit decided to try it. It was the busiest month of the year for most gyms and any business that promised a renewal of some sort, anything that could tap into the "resolution fervor" of the New Year.

I always liked New Year's, and I was always a bit surprised by the people who didn't. ("The calendar turns. Big deal. What difference does it make?") I had family and friends who didn't celebrate holidays for that very reason. Some of them were religious ("There are no special days, every day is holy") and others were non-religious. ("It's just a holiday to get people to buy stuff, besides, I'm not religious") For a long time I often felt almost guilty about the way I enjoyed holidays, both the religious (Christmas) and non-religious (New Year's) ones. It felt as though I was caving into the commercialization of our culture and the capitalization of the commoditizing nature of our comfort zones... or something like that. Intellectually stupid perhaps. Or spiritually bankrupt. Or any one of a number of cold ideas.

The point is that I thought enjoying the holidays was okay but only if I didn't attach too great a significance to them. These days, thankfully, I don't feel that way. Holidays are an important part of the way we grow as people, and those who reject them do so at their own peril...

I looked at the phone in the trainer's room and with a shrug, grabbed my gear from my locker and headed into the back room to change. To be honest, I wasn't that upset about the cancellations. January would be busy, and for now, it would nice to have a break, even if I wasn't being paid. When I'd changed and packed up, I headed to the office to wish my co-workers a Happy New Year. After a round of handshakes, I pulled on my toque and headed into the winter night.

Flurries drifted from the sky, and I tucked my hands in my pocket as I headed north towards the subway. The sidewalks were busy, and I watched the people hustle through the cold, their breath fogging the air as snippets of their conversation flowed around me. Up ahead, the Eglinton Centre loomed like a distant castle. The three flags outside the Centre snapped in the breeze overhead. It'd be nice to have some time off, nice to have some time to think about where my life was going and what the new year would bring. As much as I'd heard people downplay holidays, it seemed to me that the ones who did so were always a bit sad.

Holidays -- which are derived from the idea of Holy Days -- are a difficult time for people who have lost family members or who have had bad experiences during certain seasons. It is no secret that the Christmas season annually gives us more suicides than any other time of year. But the idea of a holiday, an annual ritual that repeats the same customs to lend stability to the human condition, is to enhance emotion and help us recall our lives. In short, holidays are about looking behind us and looking ahead. And sometimes that can be very painful) In my experience, the people who dislike holidays -- whatever the reason they give you -- tend to want to avoid one or the other. Unfortunately, this tendency is psychologically and emotionally unhealthy. Because wherever holidays come from, depending on your tradition, they replicate the rhythm of life, the waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping of human existence.

It is hard to tell now, in this industrialized world that creates its own light, but throughout history most civilizations have been agrarian, not only respondent to the seasons, but dependent and woven around them as well. In an industrialized society, the dependence is abstract at best. Unfortunately, even religious people have copied this enlightenment ideal of "progressive civilization."

For example, I find it both sad and fascinating that certain Christians will not celebrate Christmas because "it's pagan."

"Jesus was not born on December 25th," They'll tell me with a triumphant look.

My response is always the same.

"No. According to what we know, Jesus was probably born in late February. The day is symbolic."

That's when I get one of those looks from certain personality types, the same people who equate symbolism with lying. You know who I'm talking about. (These people will give you 37 Bible verses or quote The Handbook of Modern Science to prove a point. Sigh)

Of course, Jesus wasn't born on Christmas Day! December 24th, since 45 BCE, was celebrated on the Julian calendar as Winter Solstice. (Pope Gregory changed it to December 21 in 1582, which we now mark as the beginning of winter) On winter solstice, the sun ceases to decline in the sky and the length of daylight reaches its minimum for three days, during which the sun does not move on the horizon. When the three days have ended, the sun begins its ascent into the northern sky and days grow longer. Thus the interpretation by many cultures of a sun reborn and a return to light. We can see why Christians began celebrating this association as the day to mark the birth of Jesus.

This idea of what's 'pagan' and what isn't, fascinates me, if only for the ardour with which it is pursued. In many religious traditions, the date often becomes more important than the event; the event in this case is the birth of Jesus. Instead of spending our efforts reflecting upon the meaning and praxis of God coming to earth, we spend it arguing over the triivialities of things such as dates and times and locations. Some argue that to offer proof in this regard, or coincidentally disprove it, affect the legtimacy of the claim and therefore the holiday itself.


The reach towards "proof" is nothing more than an egocentric response towards divinity and away from the real meaning of the Incarnation. The significance of the birth of Jesus can't be found in its proof. The significance of Christmas is in its memory, that God loved us so much he became one of us, that the Creator of the world joined our messy, broken lives to walk with us for a time, and in so doing, show us the way to freedom. That's the significance.

Religious or not, holidays are both a great opportunity and a necessary one. The first holiday in Christian tradition is the Sabbath. The purpose: a day of rest and reflection. In fact, we can find many examples in the Old Testament of God showing us the way to dance to the rhythm of humanity, how to live in concert with the cycles of our world, and how to listen for the resonance of both heaven and earth and apply it to our lives. Without these breaks, be they the Sabbath or Passover or the Year of Jubilee or Christmas or yes, even New Year's Day, our lives often become a steady treadmill to disengagement.

I've often felt that without sleep our lives would be meaningless. Without that second chance to do tomorrow each day, what would our lives look like? Instead of merely fixing our binary connections, God has instead given us the rise and fall of breath and life that somehow exhales at the end of each day, with a chance for something new, something great, the next day.

New Year's is not a religious holiday, per se, but for me it is just as important. Once a year I look back and look forward. Once a year I take stock of my life and see where I'm headed, both emotionally and practically. And once a year I am reminded of how lucky I am, that with all my faults and mistakes, the blessings in my life are numerous beyond belief.

Humanity was created to live in cycles, in the fluttering rhythm of a broken world. The purpose of holidays is to help us see the opportunities for renewal that await us each day, each month, and each year. And to remind us that it is engagement -- with ourselves and those around us -- that points us both to freedom and blessing.

My prayer this New Year's is that you will take some time to think about where you've been and where you're headed. That you would push forward again with a new set of resolutions. And most importantly, that you wouldn't let past failures dictate your future ambitions.

Happy New Year, everyone.