This time of year we automatically say "Happy New Year" to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, days after the champagne corks have popped and the fireworks are but a memory. It has become a standard greeting for the first days of January, partly to cheer ourselves up so we can face the rest of the winter.
For the Jewish New Year, which occurs in the fall according to the Jewish calendar, the greeting of the New Year is more serious. Most people say "I wish you a happy and healthy New Year" with the stress on the word "healthy." The New Year prayer theme is somewhat foreboding: “May you be inscribed in the book of life."
Is the Jewish recognition of the New Year--it cannot really be called a celebration--more pessimistic than the non-denominational New Year that we all celebrate in one form or another? Or are we too afraid to contemplate the possibility of ill health, or even death, in the New Year and therefore settle on the simple and easily understood word "happy," which is all inclusive? It can mean anything from peace on earth to peace in the family to peace of mind.
The word "happy," when we say it, almost makes us feel that way. We smile when we greet one another because we want to convey good will, and to wish someone else happiness, it's almost a requirement that we look and sound happy ourselves. Is that why we're so generous with the greeting, and happily non-specific?
If we start to seriously think about what might happen in the New Year, as so many pundits do at this time of year, we might not be really happy, unless of course we are optimists.
There is a quotation I like which I sometimes include in my speeches when I encourage people to get politically engaged. It is: "Pessimists are usually right, but optimists change the world."
Pessimists, on this dawn of a new decade in 2010, might say that the economy will continue its slump, that terrorism will always be a threat, and that global warming will not be arrested. And they may be right.
Optimists, however, would say that the economy will improve, that we will strengthen our ability to stop terrorists from boarding airplanes, and that this is the year the leaders of the world will come to their senses and take action to stop the earth's temperature from rising ever higher and the seas from rising to new heights.
I come down on the side of the optimists, because, as the saying goes, only optimists are cock-eyed enough, determined enough, and gutsy enough to change the world.
So I say Happy New Year, yes, once again, Happy New Year. And may the earth and all the creatures on it be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.
This piece originally aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.