January takes its name from Janus, the old Roman god of gates and doorways and thus, thresholds and transitions. Most depictions of Janus show two faces looking in opposite directions, representing past and future, the old and the new. As ruler of endings and beginnings Janus was invoked at all major turning points in life. Thus, Janus was particularly present when time turned over in the long, dark nights where the end of a year comes round and a New Year begins it all again.
The backward looking face of Janus can still be seen in modern rituals of reviewing the past, naming the top stories of the year, composing lists of the best films and songs, and recounting the worst flops and miscues as well. Janus, looking the other way, can be perceived behind all the New Year resolutions and predictions, all the earnest promises to improve one’s life, and all the hopes that the future might bring more peace, prosperity and growth.
On a mythic level, New Year’s Eve can be seen as a rite of passage, a ritual of renewal currently disguised as a social event. January begins in the threshold of time shaped by the old year dying and the new one being born, in the timeless moment through which time itself becomes renewed. People instinctively kiss each other in that moment; friends hold each other close and even strangers hug one another as if to catch the spark of life and embrace the mystery of renewal and the return of light when darkness seems about to overwhelm the world.
The ancient writer Ovid wrote that the power of Janus was connected to chaos; as if the backward glance of the god looks all the way back to the primal chaos that existed before the formation of the world. In order for time to start over and a new year to begin, chaos has to be present.
Even now, New Year’s Eve brings disorder and unruliness as wild parties, loud music and an abundance of spirits reflect the old idea that chaos must reign before any renewal can occur. Firecrackers, noisemakers, and excesses of all kinds represent the chaos that necessarily precedes the renewal of time’s otherwise orderly march.
And there is one more thing that is essential to the understanding of the old god Janus and the origin of New Year celebrations. Besides the presence of chaos, a return to the beginning brings with it a renewal of all the potentials of life. Not simply the notion of a fresh start; but the deeper sense that the wisdom of Janus involves both a tolerance for chaos and a strong intuition of life’s hidden potentials.
There is no doubt that we live in chaotic and troubling times. The radical effects of climate change evidence that; the toxic levels of partisan politics say that. The increase of bigotry, misogyny and self-serving ideologies all bespeak a chaos that has been loosed upon the world. Yet, amidst the chaos and collapse of one period, the next shape of life takes form; not after the chaos is over; but in the midst of it all.
The world renews itself all the time in the secrecy of forests, in the inner mysteries of quantum exchanges; but also in the hearts of those who commit fully to life. If people can remain open-minded and open hearted, whether it is the dark of the year or the darkest time of one’s life, renewal remains a possibility.
It is important to mark the beginning of the next year, not because it is a social occasion or simply a reason to get together. But because, consciously or unconsciously, we stand on the threshold of time turning over and can look both ways and assist the world to begin again and thereby tap the unseen potentials of life, of love and healing and meaningful change.
Beyond the capacity to shift from one vision to another, Janus was also the arbiter of peace and war. So, at the beginning of each year quarrels were avoided, feuds were put aside and differences minimized in order that everyone might participate in the magic and mystery of the light of life returning and time renewing itself from the ashes of the past.
As in the old custom of “first footing”, neighbors and friends brought simple gifts or a song to each person’s door so that the first thing crossing the doorway of each home in the New Year would be something inherently life enhancing.
Consciously or unconsciously, we stand on the threshold of time turning over and can look both ways and assist the world to begin again and thereby tap the unseen potentials of life and love and the magic of change.
May the threshold of the New Year open before you in ways that reveal hidden potentials and more ways to live with meaning and purpose and imagination.
Wishing you a blessed and soulful New Year,
Michael Meade and Mosaic Staff
Michael Meade and Mosaic Staff