TO every creature except people, the eve of a new year must be a cataclysm. On the last day of the old year, the birds were absent. It was a cold day but not much colder than other days. When one is used to waking up at birdsong, the silence of a birdless dawn penetrates sleep even before one is released from the clasp of a dream.
The march of hours reclaimed our waking. For some people, there is a disheveled household to put into order after the indulgences of the recent holiday. For many others, the order of the day is to prepare anew for a fresh round of indulgences to usher in another year.
According to the Internet, New Year’s Day is “probably the world’s most celebrated public holiday”.
The counting of the first of January as the start of a year is a practice began with the Georgian and Julian calendars. The Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches mark January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Catholics also celebrate this as a Holy Day of Obligation for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
The celebration of New Year, though, has older roots. January is so named after the Romans’ dedication of the first day of the year to the god Janus, patron of “gates, doors, beginnings”. The pagan deity bears two faces: one facing forward, the other backward.
In his homily on the 31st of December, a bishop emeritus urged the faithful to carry out just two things on New Year’s Eve: “Thank you, I am sorry for what has been and will be.”
From the bedroom window, our family watched as a second multicolored lake of spectacle exploded over Laguna de Bay at the stroke of midnight on the first of January 2015. The cities on the rim of the largest lake east of Metro Manila are populous and nearly all prosperous.
As the intervals in between explosions shortened and finally disappeared as midnight came and went, it was difficult to imagine the cold, extravagant flashes synchronizing with gratitude or humility. The explosions lasted for nearly an hour, a fiery display of wealth or the hubris underlying the burning of millions of pesos to banish human fears.
Confronted with darkness and uncertainty, humanity seeks the reassurance of light. Our race after all harnessed fire, which all other creatures shun as destroyer.
Not Jesus or Mary but Janus, the two-faced deity, lurks in the rituals we keep faith with every New Year’s eve. It is he who presides over transitions, which can signify beginnings or endings, life or death, passages that put the present in the continuum of past and future.
In this modern age of disbelief, we relegate Janus the god to the janitor, menial cleaner of all passageways. The ancient Romans had no less than the King of Sacred Rites tending the ceremonies of Janus.
For the Romans were like us, subject to superstitions. They had to stay on the good side of Janus, god of chaos. Janus or Ianus, derived from the word “hiantem” or “hiare,” means also to “be open”. Because every new year can be a blessing or an omen, we resort to the old reliable we have harnessed since the dawn of time: fire.
The animals know better. Long after the fumes of New Year’s fireworks have dissipated, no bird will risk passage. Fire is the enemy. Or perhaps birdlore is just spared of superstitions.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 4, 2015 issue of the “Matamata,” Sunday editorial-page column