(This is the last in a series of stories about how different cultures mark the New Year.)
By Janis Fontaine
In our look at New Year’s celebrations from around the world, we’ve included holidays recognized by millions — and others celebrated by just a few. We found some celebrations to be symbolic, some whimsical and some poignant. But few of the commemorations merit the reverence of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which takes place from Sept. 9 to 11.
Rosh Hashanah is one of the most solemn and important holidays for Jews. It marks the anniversary of the birth of creation, the six days in which God created the Earth. It also recognizes the birth of Adam and Eve, but it was man’s first sin that started the clock ticking on humanity.
But Rosh Hashanah is more than a New Year’s commemoration; it’s also judgment day. Judaism teaches that during the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which is Sept. 18-19 this year, everyone and everything will pass before God to be judged. The faithful ruminate on their lives and both give and ask for forgiveness for wrongs during the past year.
“Getting judged is scary,” said Rabbi Shmuel Biston of Chabad of Delray Beach. “We want to help you achieve the right mindset so you can make a positive step forward.”
The rabbi’s job is to facilitate this deep personal analysis and to make it meaningful and to explain the teachings and rituals.
Rosh Hashanah isn’t the only New Year’s commemoration that takes place in the fall.
Al-Hijra, also known as Arabic New Year, is celebrated by Muslims around the world in September. In the lunar-based Islamic calendar, days begin at sunset instead of at midnight, and nightfall Sept. 11 will mark the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year.
The historic significance is that in the year 622, Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina (the hegira), two of the holiest sites in Islam, during Muharram. He was in search of a place where Muslims would be free to practice their religion. The suffix AH seen on the Muslim calendar means “after hegira.”
People use the day to reflect on the year that has passed and ponder the coming year. These days, it’s more of a public, cultural holiday than a religious one. The festivals that mark the end of hajj (the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) and Ramadan are considered the most important events on the Islamic calendar. Traditions and customs vary, but those who celebrate will go to prayer sessions and spend time with family. Religious scholars say the focus of the day should be on reflection and gratitude.
A world away in Ethiopia, people will celebrate Enkutatash, also called Gift of Jewels, on Sept. 11. This national holiday marks the first day of the Ethiopian New Year, and Ethiopia stands alone as the only country to use the 13-month Coptic calendar. In it there are 12 months of 30 days and one month with five days, or six days in leap years. The year begins with the first of day of Meskerem.
In late October, when many folks are putting up Halloween decorations and getting ready to binge on candy, in Western Australian, a few people will celebrate the New Year in the manner of the aboriginal tribe Murador, now extinct. Oct. 30 is an important day to the tribe and people still gather to commemorate it by recalling the tribe’s culture via artifacts and texts. Murador celebrates friendship, reconciliation and appreciation.
Finally, in November, millions of Hindus will celebrate Di Wali, or the Festival of Lights. Sometimes called Deepavali or Deepawali, it’s celebrated with great enthusiasm nationwide. The main festive night — Diwali Night falls on Nov. 7 this year — coincides with the darkest moonless night of the new moon. The theme is light conquering darkness, and it’s a celebration of love.
People decorate their houses with lights and candles and offer prayers to goddess Lakshmi for wealth and abundance. Gifts are exchanged, sweets are eaten and fireworks cap this celebration of family and friends, which includes plenty of non-Hindus celebrating alongside them.
Most cultures have some sort of New Year’s celebration or commemoration, and in many cultures it’s an important time for self-assessment, personal growth, reconciliation, atonement and new beginnings, while for others it’s just another party.