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A Clean Sweep for the New Year

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As we enter the new year, our thoughts turn to new beginnings, new possibilities, new hope. This fragile interval that separates one year from the next is pregnant with potential. We find ourselves taking time out of time to evaluate our past experiences and actions and to prepare ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually for our future. Our reflections and resolutions at this transition period of the great turning of the annual wheel are critical, for they create the ambient atmosphere and attitude for the entire year to come.

A new year represents another chance, a fresh start, a clean slate, and so we embark upon the shift as on a dangerous journey, freshly bathed and outfitted, full of purpose, fingers crossed in blessing. People enjoy elaborate toilettes, bodies washed, dressed, groomed, combed until they are thoroughly cleansed -- often internally as well, through fasting. In India it is traditional to bathe in the Ganges to purify oneself for the new year. The Cherokee immerse themselves seven times in a river at dawn on their new year, Nvwoti Equa.

In addition to purifying our person, special care has always been taken to clean and maintain the temples, churches, synagogues, cemeteries, groves and shrines in which prayers for the propitious new year are made. In Myanmar, the former Burma, the new year festival of Thingyan is celebrated by drenching the entire country, every building and dwelling, and all of its inhabitants, in cleansing water. All images of the Buddha, indoors and out, are scrubbed clean as a crucial display of blessing.

By obvious extension, this new year's urge to purge includes our home environments, where the most intimate and ordinary prayers of daily life are uttered. If a man's home is his castle, surely it is a woman's shrine. Cleaning house to make ready for a new year is a universal task, as symbolic and reverent as it is practical. Out with the old and in with the new! Death to dirt! Removing the dust and detritus accumulated during the previous year ensures the ridding of a dwelling and its occupants of the shortcomings and disappointments delivered during that time as well. Domestic renovation signifies spiritual and social renewal.

All over the world, houses are scrubbed spic and span from top to bottom, and yards and walkways are swept spotlessly clean. In old England, New Year's Day was the annual sweeping of all chimneys. The expression "to make a clean sweep" comes from this new year's custom. In Hong Kong, 10 days before the new year, women observe a Day for Sweeping Floors. At this time, an intensive house cleaning is begun in readiness for the new year. Nothing -- no corner -- is left untouched. On New Year's Day Moroccans pour water over themselves, their animals and the floors and walls of their homes. In Wales, children go door to door to beg water from their neighbors, which they then scatter all over the houses of their community in order to bless them.

Midwinter is when the sun first reappears in Siberia, finally, after the months-long polar winter. At this most eagerly awaited, wondrous time, the Nganasan people celebrate the Clean Tent Ceremony, the premiere rite of their ritual calendar. A special "clean tent" is erected in the village, and here the shaman sits for three to nine days while the children dance and play outside the tent. Encased in dark isolation, surrounded by the insular sound of his or her beating heart pulsing in prayer, the shaman seeks the guiding light of the spirit and invokes the protection of the gods and goddesses for all the people and the whole of nature for the year to come. Some peoples, like the Incas and Creeks, discarded everything, everything, used in the past year. In a more tame tradition, symbolic of the same spirit, the Mayans replace all their domestic articles of everyday use.

In many Native American cultures, in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, hearth fires are extinguished annually and ritually rekindled in a New Year ritual of new fire. In this way, sins and devils are purged in purification ceremonies symbolizing spiritual renewal. Zuni women throw out their live embers, then sprinkle their entire homes with corn meal in a rite called House Cleansing in order to ensure good fortune in childbirth in the coming year. During the Iranian New Year celebration of Narooz, wild rue is burned in households because it is believed to drive away all evil and usher in a happy and propitious new year.

Santería, which combines elements of the West African Yoruban religion with those of the Catholic Church and the traditions of the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean, has many methods of spiritual house cleaning. Ordinarily one cleans one's own home, altar and aura with a wide variety of special washes, herbs and candles. But in serious cases of impurity, a padrina/padrino will make a house call to perform a special purification ceremony. She or he most often will spit rum in a fine spray around the room, or roll a burning coconut along the floor while praying, to rid the place of bad energy.

So, let's get out the brooms and the buckets, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Scrub the grime out of our environment and our mentality. Let us start this new year, this decade, with a clean sweep, with a clean slate and with a clear conscience. Let us cleanse and purify our houses, inside and out. Purge our negative energy. Polish our intentions. And make our world shine.

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