Advent — Happy New Year! (liturgically speaking)

[2013: I wrote this piece on Advent's role in the liturgical calendar last year. This year, Advent begins on December 1 and runs three weeks and three days, while the Frost Moon fell back on November 17. And as I mentioned last year, Rosh Hashanah, which is also determined by moon cycles, happened this year at the earliest possible date, September 5 (starting the evening of the 4th, that is.)]

The beginning of Advent is also the beginning of the liturgical year in many Christian denominations. It’s the date when everything starts over — rotations of scripture readings, cycles of seasons and accompanying color themes. (More on all that in another post.)

Advent (which means arrival) starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Since Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, the “four-week” season of Advent this year is only three weeks and two days. This year, the beginning of Advent also falls just after the Frost moon, which was last Thursday, arguably the real beginning of winter.

Several traditions celebrate their new year around this time. It’s always seemed odd to me, to celebrate beginnings in the middle of winter. But there are three basic bases for when to start the year:

  1. at the beginning of Spring, when life begins anew. (Easter, Nowruz)
  2. at the end of Fall — some time around the very end of harvest season — when the previous cycle of life comes to an end. (Rosh Hashanah, Eastern Orthodox Indiction)
  3. at or near the winter solstice — the point at which days start getting longer again. (Advent, Christmas, Yule, New Year’s, Sadeh)

While the Roman Catholic Church and most of the Protestant world starts its new liturgical year at Advent, around the beginning of December, the Eastern Orthodox Church still starts on September 1, called the Indiction, as the Roman church used to do. I can’t find a specific explanation for why this day was chosen, though tradition holds it was on this day Jesus entered the synagogue and proclaimed that the scripture predicting the coming of Christ was fulfilled (Luke 4:16-22), and also that the Hebrew people entered the promised land. This older Christian tradition places it closer to the Hebrew New Year.

Well, one of them anyway.

In Judaism, the liturgical year begins two weeks before Passover, which has a fixed date aligned with the first full moon after the Spring equinox. However, the civil year begins with Rosh Hashanah, six months later, around the beginning of fall. Both holidays move around in the Western calendar because Passover is based on lunar cycles, but Rosh Hashanah always happens between September 5 and October 5. (Next year, it will happen on the earliest possible date, September 5, for the first time in over a hundred years.) Rosh Hashanah is seen as the day of judgement, when people’s statuses are recorded in the book of life, kind of like an annual report.

Most lunar calendars are anchored to certain seasonal (and thus solar) events. Lacking that tethering to the seasons, Islam’s lunar calendar — which is 11 or 12 days shorter than the West’s solar calendar — drifts. So the Muslim new year, Hijri, like other holidays, moves around on the seasons. Coincidentally, Hijri this year fell in this season, on November 14. But, for example, a decade ago, it happened on March 4, 2003.

That’s not to be confused, though, with the Zoroastrian new year of Persia, Nowruz, which is still celebrated in Iran and many other countries that were once part of the Persian Empire, including Iraq, parts of the Middle East and the “-stan” countries, as well as places where Iranians have settled throughout the world. It starts around the Spring solstice, like the Jewish calendar. Though its roots are religious (it’s believed to be the anniversary of the first day of creation), Islamic leaders consider Nowruz a pagan holiday and have attempted to suppress it.

With no luck.

So, many Muslims celebrate the new year twice, once religiously and once in a secular holiday with pagan roots, just Western Christians do with Advent and New Year’s Day. January 1 originally was a Roman holiday dedicated along with its month to Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings, with one face looking backward and one looking forward. In Germanic and Scandinavian countries during the early Middle Ages, church leaders aggressively discouraged the 12-day pagan festival around New Year’s called Yule, with its custom of exchanging gifts. Some believe increasing the emphasis on Christmas (picking up Yule customs) while reducing the emphasis on Easter in general were concessions to what people were already doing.

So, if you’re a Christian from a tradition that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, happy new liturgical year!

You can see all my Advent-themed pieces together at patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/tag/advent/. Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


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