Since the world and all of its constituent parts is always turning, there are many possible ways to calculate when a year is new. And, consequently, there is great diversity among peoples as to the determination of the actual New Year.
The Slavs and Norse reckoned years from one winter to the next. A Greek might describe a "one-winter goat." Latin cultures still speak of "a girl of fifteen summers." In South Arabia, the year spanned from one season of the plucking of the dates to the next. For the Algonquins of Virginia, the time that elapses between one blossoming of the cashew tree to the next is a year. The Dahomey people of West Africa have a term for year, which translates as, "time-of-reaping-maize-and-eating-it-plus-time-of-planting-it-again-and-reaping-it-again." In Sanskrit, "year" originally referred to autumn.
The fall, when the long hard labor of the growing and reaping seasons is finally finished and when the storehouses are as full as they will ever be, is an especially appropriate time to begin the year. Ultimately, all harvest festivities celebrate one more season of our tenuous survival, another fertile period passed in our favor. We have been lucky and one way or another, we will have the wherewithal to sustain ourselves through another winter, another dry spell, another monsoon, yet another tricky test of time.
Harvest time makes for a natural New Year and is celebrated as such in several cultures. The New Year is determined by the yam harvest for Trobrian Islanders of Melanesia, as well as the Hausa of Ghana who call it the "Feast of the Full Stomach." The all-important Festival of the Yam marks the beginning of the Nigerian Yoruban calendar year with fasting, sacrificial offerings, and finally, great elaborate feasting. One ceremony translates from Kiswahili as, "Setting the Table."
Crop Over, celebrated as a civic festival in Barbados since 1973, originated as the harvest festival of the slaves who cut the sugar cane crop. A grand procession of decorated carts pulled by fancied-up horses hauls in the last loads of cane to the mill yards. The parade, lead by a woman in white, features a float with an effigy of "Mr. Harding," Mr. Hard Times, an ugly, unsympathetic figure made from waste products from the sugar mills and dressed in black coattails and a top hat. At the culmination of the dancing, gaming, feasting and "stick-licking" (a fencing-like martial art practiced with sticks of sugar cane) the (colonial) fellow is fed to the fire and the new season officially begins.
The Cherokee Green Corn Festival is the New Year when the world is re-created. Festivities begin with Atohuna, Friends Made Ceremony. Evil spirits are banished from the tribe, driven away with poles made of sycamore. Fires are smothered and new sacred flames are kindled. The ceremonial cycle culminates with the Great Moon Ceremony, Nuwatiegwa, which celebrates the eternal creation of the world anew each year. At sunset on the eve of the Full Harvest Moon, the people gather for an all night vigil on the banks of a river where they fast and bathe. At dawn, they immerse themselves seven times, emerging purified and new like the year.
The New Harvest Moon ushers in the Jewish High Holiday Season. The ritual cycle starts with Rosh Hashanah, the new moon in Libra, the first day of the first lunar moon after the Autumn Equinox. It is customary at the Rosh (begins) Hashanah (the year) family dinner, to share the succulent fruits of the fall harvest -- apples, honey and wine -- to ensure a sweet year to come. Fish, also sweetened, is served to symbolize fertility, as well as carrots that represent prosperity. Challah, the round ceremonial braided bread baked from freshly milled flour, stands for life without end.
Ten days later, Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, follows. On this most solemn day of the Hebrew calendar, people fast and pray that they might be forgiven -- and forgiving -- of all sins committed either by intent or by accident, by commission or by omission. Through this intense internal cleansing, their psyche is cleared of all impediments and they are able to enter the New Year in a state of atonement -- at-one-ment -- with themselves, their intimates, the community at large and the entire cosmos. The daylong fast is broken at sunset, so that eating a meal becomes the first act of the New Year.
May this autumn usher in an entirely New Era for the whole of humankind, wherein each and every person might have enough to eat each day. May we harvest together the offerings of our mutual Mother Earth and feast together as a family in the spirit of cooperation, communion, and commemoration.