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Ring out the Old, Ring in the New!

Growing up in my grandparents’ home, the story of the New Year was always that of a tottering old man with a cane. He wore this loose long shirt, the beard twisted down to his tummy and his back bent. He represented the old year about to go, a symbol of what went on for hundreds of days. He had served his purpose and the universe had no need for him anymore.

The old year as an aged man was a sad sight for anyone and my father would always tell us that. There was nowhere else for him – the old year – to go but to disappear. In the same frame of the Old Man/Old Year was infant in swaddling clothes. He would be depicted always as crawling, toddling, unsure of his footing, barely able to stand. He symbolized the coming New Year.

The Young Child/New Year usually would have this smile on his face, an expression of vigor and enthusiasm. He was unburdened by any thought, his path a blank slate before the first month of January and then the succeeding days and months began to color the roads leading to many occurrences.

Depicted on the pages of magazines and on editor’s page, this anthropomorphizing of Time (he is Father Time, as we were taught by many) elicited from me always regret. The old man had done so much but his tired body and glum expression managed to tell me he had not done enough. That there was so much to be regretful of, that he should have been given more time. But time was never on the side of the Old Year. He/It should go.

Was the Old Man/Old Year ever drawn with a smile on that old face? A condemnation had taken place somewhere: old means useless; to age is to be thrown away.

All the happiness, as far as I could remember it, was on the person of the Young Child. An arrogant gaze into the future was his birthright; happiness was his enterprise. Given the spirit of humanity imbued in the Old Man as well as the Baby, the joy on the part of the incoming year meant sorrow for the one that was about to leave us.

But there is a lesson in the imaging I talked about. The old year needed to understand that his departure is in the seed of his own existence. That he must leave the stage so that another existence can be on the said space of performances. In that simple (almost simplistic) imagination of the greatest change a human being can experience, life begins anew when an ancient phase has been allowed to rot away.

The Old Man and the Infant, to follow, Mircea Eliade, the historian and philosopher of religion, are our tickets into the narrative of the myth. To recall or retell the personages of the myth is to depart from the secular and profane world and be admitted into the sacred space where one does not merely observe but participate. In relating the stories of Time and the spirits that are in Time, then we are allowing the return to the origin. We go back to the beginning of Time. Then things happen again. This, according to Eliade, is the myth of eternal return.

Observing the New Year is therefore to be conscious of the passage of time. If we pay no attention to it, Eliade once said, time does not exist.

Each year therefore, after Christmas, we become very conscious of the waning days of the old year. We rethink of the rituals of avoidance (what things we should elude) and the taboos (what acts should we not do).

In our old homes, I could still recall how the plentiful foods were cooked so that the kitchen would remain untouched on the first day of the New Year. Matches (at a time when wood was still used for cooking) would be stocked up together with the most basic condiments for cooking and eating. The rule was not to spend anything on the first day of the year. The young ones were warned to wake up early – to rise and shine – because not to do that on the first day would mean one would be lazy and laggard the rest of that year. Sticky rice and delicacies using the glutinous rice varieties would be prepared so that the family members could, like the rice, stick to each other. Cuisine took on the auspicious function of facilitating social adhesion.

As for the ringing of the bells, the lines came from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Memoriam. We remember the other lines but miss out on two important passages: Ring out the old, ring in the new,…/The year is going, let him go;/Ring out the false, ring in the true.

This is the power of New Year: the lies we told in the past three-hundred days or so could be forgotten, and forgiven, because we are bringing in the New Year, the New Time, where we can be truthful and start anew.

Happy New Year!


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