Sunday 3 January 2010

Whose New Year Is It?

Most national holidays in any country are based upon the religious holidays of the country's majority. Christmas and Easter are good examples of this in the Christian world. In addition to religious holidays, most countries have at least one national day. For example, the USA celebrates two national days in the form of Independence Day and Thanksgiving. I have long keenly observed how holidays celebrated in one part of the world find their way to other parts of the world in the global village that our world has become. The new year holiday seems to me to be one which transcends religions and nations.

Much TV and newspaper space has been devoted to the lavish celebrations and fireworks displays that have been put on around the world to welcome the start of 2010. But whose new year is it really? The Chinese celebrate their new year according to the lunar calendar. This usually falls in the Gregorian calendar between late January and late February. The Indians celebrate new year at different times of the year in different places. These celebrations are also according to the lunar calendar and do not correspond to the traditional western date of 1 January. The Indians and Chinese together comprise almost half of the world's population, so it seems as though the Gregorian 1 January date maybe celebrated by a minority of the world. The Jewish calendar is also a lunar one, with the Jewish new year being celebrated at the start of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which corresponds to a date in September or October in the Gregorian calendar.

The truth is that the Gregorian new year, or civilian new year as it is called in Israel, seems to be universally celebrated and I am guessing that it is probably the most widely celebrated holiday. This is largely because the Gregorian calendar is in prevalent use, even where different calendars are followed. Although the Hebrew date is used on all official documents in Israel, Israeli society operates according to the Gregorian calendar aside from the dates of the Jewish festivals. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Israelis have increasingly taken to celebrating when 1 January comes around. There are those in Israel who are wholly opposed to any sort of celebration for the civilian new year. They believe that it is even anti-Jewish to mark this occasion. I have a somewhat ambivalent view on the subject.

Growing up in rural South Africa, I always felt that trying celebrate the Jewish holidays required significant effort and compromise. It always appeared as if the most important activities at school were reserved for the days upon which I had to be away for one Jewish holiday or another. Of course, I gladly took the days off for the Christian holidays even though we had no part in celebrating the festival. When moving later to a university which had a more significant body of Jewish students in my classes, the university was forced to be more accommodating to the Jewish students and faculty staff. In later years when working in London, I always had to plan well in advance to ensure that I could take Jewish holidays off work. These holiday requests were not always well received by my employers.

When coming to Israel, I felt a real sense of relief that I would be able to legitimately take days off for the Jewish holidays. This is a part of living in Israel that I still enjoy immensely. For the first time in my life, I am entitled to take off Jewish holidays without having to explain or justify this. I am even entitled to take the day before the Jewish holiday (erev chag). I am amused that the non-Jewish workers in Israel know how to offer the traditional greeting for each Jewish holiday, and are familiar with the customs and foods that are associated with such holidays. For me, the wheel has turned full circle from the days when I was forced to wish friends and customers a Merry Christmas in the town in which I lived. Now it is them who greet me with my holiday greeting.

It is regarded as ironic by Christians around the world that Christmas is not celebrated in the country in which the Christmas story took place. When Christmas falls on a regular weekday, it is regular work day in Israel with all businesses, shops and the stock exchange open for work and trade as usual. Because the Israeli majority is Jewish and Christmas is a Christian holiday, it is clear why this is not celebrated in Israel. In fact, I was most unimpressed when my local gym decided to put up a decorations around the Christmas season. Although there were no images of Santa Claus or his reindeer, the white snowflakes and winter scene effects were enough to convince me that the decorations were not for Chanukah.

It was the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who was first to celebrate January 1st as the start of the new year in 46 B.C.E. On this occasion, the new year was celebrated by Caesar ordering the violent routing of revolutionary Jewish forces in the Galilee. Because new year's day is 8 days after the birthday of Jesus, it would also have been the day of his circumcision according to Jewish tradition. During the medieval and post-medieval periods, this day was specifically reserved for violent anti-Jewish activities such as synagogue and book burning, public tortures and murder.

Pope Gregory, the architect of our current calendar system, initiated many anti-Jewish activities on new year's day during his reign. It was during the second half of the 16th century that he variously initiated Catholic conversion sermons being delivered in Roman synagogues after Friday evening prayers, the confiscation of sacred texts from Roman Jews and many other anti-Semitic activities to coincide with 1 January. Many Jews were killed during this period.

In Israel, new year is commonly known as "Sylvester". In fact, Sylvester was the name of a Saint and Pope who reigned during the 4th century. He convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. All Catholic Saints are given a day upon which Christians can celebrate and pay tribute to the Saint's memory. December 31st was the day given to Saint Sylvester, hence the fact that new year's eve is known as Sylvester.

It is easy to see why celebrating new year can be associated with the considerable number of anti-Semitic acts perpetrated on this day in the past. Without derogating or diminishing the horror of such actions, I feel that there is still place to recognise that the year has changed. It presents an opportunity to consider what has taken place over the past 12 months, while expressing positive wishes and intentions for the year ahead.

Whatever your view happens to be, it is my wish that 2010 will be a happy, healthy and successful year for everybody. Whilst it is my hope that Middle East politics will continue to give me much to think and write about, I sincerely hope that I will be writing about positive actions, about progress towards peace and understanding and about much greater levels of tolerance by all parties. Happy new year !

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