My Mother can still recite the blessing in German. She learned it as a child, for New Year’s Day, when folks in Rush County, in central Kansas, would go from house to house, offering a benediction in return for food, drink, or coin
Most people, at least those who can still touch their roots, know of New Year customs that are similar. They date to the dawn of human civilization and are an example of what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic,” getting the powers of the world to do what you want by showing them what you intend. So, for example, making noise and throwing water on the ground to produce thunder and rain. And, during Yuletide, lighting fires at night and raising green fur boughs skyward to call back the dying sun.
The notion behind feasting at New Year is to show the coming year what you expect, or at least hope, from it. If the year begins with food and coin aplenty, it should continue that way. Giving gifts was a way of planting prosperity.
Sometimes folk like to say that Christ is the reason for the season. Yule predates him by centuries, but Christians immediately began to see its deepest sense in him. He is the new beginning, the great blessing that only God can give. Hence the blessing, which my mother was taught to offer.
The Church beginning the New Year, celebrating Mary, the Mother of God, has ancient roots. January 1st is the octave, the eighth day, of Christmas. Contemplating and celebrating the woman who so quickly came to be called Theotokos, the God-bearer, or Mother of God, seemed to make sense.
There’s a meditative beauty to the feast, when one remembers the role of sympathetic magic for our ancestors. Teach the year, and the powers that be, what you want of them on the first day, and, hopefully, the remaining days of the year will follow. Moderns may eschew the magic, but we still look to the nascent year with longing. The Church calls Mary the new Eve, the new mother of humanity, because in her the world begins again. Insisting upon her sinlessness, the Church reminds us that at least one small spot of creation offered a complete and constant “yes” to the Christ of God.
There’s even a bit of role reversal going on here, also typical of Yuletide. In our, admittedly patriarchal, creation story, Eve came forth from Adam, the afterthought of God’s creation. In the Gospel, Mary comes before Christ, the great forethought of salvation.
It’s a good New Year’s wish, one that gathers the desires of the ancestors into the hope of the Gospel. Mary does that as well.
In Mary, and the Son who came forth from her, the Lord has fulfilled this great promise. It’s only limited by the length of our own belief, the depth of our response to the Christ. In the Virgin of Nazareth, humanity began in the best possible way. She is, in the words of devotion, the Morning Star, the one who shines, who shows the way.
Numbers 6: 22-27 Galatians 4: 4-7 Luke 2: 16-21