Meanings of Christmas: The passing of the old and the mystery of the new

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The Independent Online
However commercialised it has become, Christmas is still a festival from which Jews feel excluded. But the secular New Year, argues Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, is a time for choosing - and belonging.

Jews find the secular New Year a bit of an anticlimax. After all, it's only a few months since we finished celebrating the spiritual marathon of our own Jewish New Year. In the 10 days between our New Year's Day and the Day of Atonement we worked our way through sin, repentance, fasting, forgiveness, a metaphorical death (the white gown we wear will one day be our shroud) and reconciliation with God. Add the Festival of Succot, Tabernacles, that immediately follows, with its symbolic journey through the wilderness of life, concluding with the ecstatic festival of "Rejoicing in the Law", to mark the completion of the annual cycle of Bible readings, and we're pretty much spiritually wrung dry.

After all that an evening of bubbly, balloons and "Auld Lang Syne" has to seem pretty tame. Even New Year resolutions feel out of place. We began the Day of Atonement with a formal confession that all our vows or oaths should be considered as null and void - a reference to the promises we make to God to be a better person. So having admitted that we cannot be trusted to keep such vows, creating a lot of New Year resolutions rings pretty hollow.

Besides, we have other Jewish New Years as well. There is a "New Year for Trees", to mark the beginning of spring in Israel, and a biblical "New Year for Kings". And 1 January is not the only new year in the secular calendar. We have a "New Year for Taxes" in April, another for academic studies in the autumn and even a "New Year for Car Number Plates" in the summer. New Years simply mark off time in useful chunks for particular purposes.

For my daughter and her school friends New Year's Eve marks the finish to the Christmas season. Christmas itself means a lot of good movies on the telly. Her Christian friends explain that there may also be a special "family dinner", but since this is only a once-a-year get-together, old family tensions often come out so that everyone gets a bit ratty. (Jews have the same experience at the annual Passover family meal.) So the New Year is something of a relief since there are no such expectations of brotherly and sisterly love. Instead, for my daughter's circle, everything focuses on the New Year's Eve party; what to wear and who to go with. Even so, she added, it is usually a disappointment. And I also remember those lonely teenage midnights when everyone but me seemed to be partnered and having a ball when Big Ben struck. But at least we choose who we want to share New Year's Eve with, neither tradition nor family imposing itself upon us.

However much Christmas has been commercialised, at its heart there remains a Christian message. Assimilated Jews might even have their own Christmas tree, but they know that the festival is not really theirs. On the other hand, the New Year is utterly neutral. It is a secular occasion available to everyone of every faith or none.

What we celebrate together is actually a kind of shared belonging to this country and this culture. The end-of-the-year documentaries remind us that we have gone through these events together, and they are now part of our common memory. So we borrow a bit of Hogmanay from the Scots, and "Auld Lang Syne" becomes for a moment our song whether our ancestors invaded the country with the Normans or got off the boat as refugees a generation ago. The very neutrality of New Year's Eve helps it become a kind of unifying ritual for all who call this island their home.

It even has a "theology" of a kind as well. We mark the passing of time, select the events we choose to remember, and explain to ourselves what has brought us to this turning point in our lives. And we allow ourselves a moment of hope that the future will be better, that the bad things of the past will never come again, a hope sometimes as evanescent as our resolutions.

We celebrate the simple fact that we have survived to be together for one more such occasion. Our collective memory as a nation meets our hope for the future. Together we count down the seconds until no church bells, but rather the sombre tones of Big Ben, toll for the passing of the old and offer just a touch of unease before the mystery of the new.