As I write this on the afternoon of December 31st I think back to my childhood growing up in Canada. Although I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish community, it was not uncommon for me and my friends to celebrate New Year’s in one way or another. Usually, it was an excuse to get together and have a good time while waiting for the clock to strike twelve amidst a raucous celebration.
The more I reflect on this the more I have come to believe that this celebration by Jews of New Year’s is inappropriate on a number of levels.
First, Judaism has a new year of its own. Rosh Hashana, the first of Tishrei, is the Jewish new year. The theme of the day is repentance, reflection, and, most importantly, acceptance of our responsibility to serve as loyal subjects in G-d’s kingdom. While the day’s observance includes festive meals, the mood of the day is holy and somber rather than celebratory and frivolous. This is the concept of the new year that Judaism promotes. New beginnings are a time for serious reflection and reaffirmation of our commitment to G-d.
The custom of partying and carousing on New Year’s originates in pagan practices in the ancient world. The hedonistic Roman culture of eating, drinking, and merry-making saw the New Year as yet another reason to celebrate the physical pleasures of this Earth. Participation by G-d-fearing Jews in such practices that are based in and emulate pagan customs is disturbing and possibly even problematic according to Torah law.
That said, there is another reason that I have grown uncomfortable with New Year’s celebrations. I believe that secular celebrations of New Years are an insult to another religion. Allow me to explain.
In the post Roman era and especially in more recent times, New Year’s has developed into a Christian holiday. Christian observance of New Year’s has shunned the hedonistic celebrations of the day. In much of the Christian world, New Year’s is a day of prayer and reflection. Some denominations have special church services, prayers, and scriptural readings to mark the holiness of the day. It’s worth noting that, unlike the merry New Year’s celebrations that abound, religious Christian themes of the New Year — starting over, reaffirming one’s commitment to G-d — are much more in line with the Torah concept of a new year.
In recent decades, Christians are increasingly threatened and concerned by the secularization of their religious Holy Days. The materialist consumerist focus of Christmas is only the most glaring example. The trend in Western culture to de-emphasize religious themes of the holidays both threatens and — justifiably — offends Christians who are battling the popular culture to keep G-d in the center of their lives and the lives of their children.
Many Jewish holy days have parallel pagan holidays that were practiced at similar times of year and for similar reasons. Part and parcel of the anti-pagan agenda of the Torah is the very establishment of holy days that dedicate those same time periods and season of the year to G-d rather than the pagan pantheon.
It is no secret that Christianity adopted seasons of celebration from the pagan world and, taking a page out of the Torah’s book, recast these holidays as holy days dedicated to the service of the creator of heaven and earth.
Imagine if one of the Jewish holy days that we hold so dear was co-opted by the popular culture outside of Judaism, stripped of its religious meaning, and then celebrated by Gentiles in that way that is more pagan than G-dly. How would we, as Jews, feel? How would we feel if our own children were then at risk of getting swept up in the new “fun” way of celebrating our holy day?
And so, it is out of both respect for Christians as well as a shared concern for the direction that Western culture is taking that I feel that it is wrong for Jews to celebrate what has become — and should be viewed ––as a Christian holy day.