New Year is a strange time which may induce strange responses. Among those communions which follow a liturgical calendar, only the Catholic church marks the date, designating it the feast of Mary. Mother of God. Those of us who are agnostic about the family relationships of the Divine must devise our own markers for the changing year.
Coming from a family which paid no attention to the festivities which attend the rolling over of calendrical digits, I have retained a certain incomprehension about the procedures which society expects at this season.
Although I have never been a party animal, I enjoy good company, stimulating conversation and a pint of Wainright's as much as the next Puritan. But anything which involves large crowds and the excessive consumption of alcohol, seems not only pointless, but ultimately damaging. It leaves those who have invested so much effort and expectation in the pursuit of 'fun' with sore heads and feelings of despondency which may even amount to mild depression when they realise that the world remains exactly as it was on 31st December.
The memorialising of life changing events is hard-wired into our natures. We mark the anniversaries of birth, death and marriage simply because they are life changing. Reflection on the experiences of joy, sorrow, gain and loss inform our thinking, make us the people we are and therefore influences our future actions. And because these are real events, the dates have real significance.
But New Year is a chronological convenience and the Gregorian division of times and seasons is by no means universal - Jewish, Islamic and Chinese calendars name other dates as the beginning of a new year. Sometimes a cliché may be useful: “this is the first day of the rest of your life” is a call to responsibility.
Whether one belongs to the Wrong but Wromantic school of calendrists which sees 2010 as the beginning of a new decade, or to the Right but Repulsive tendency which insists that next year ends the 'noughties', the fact that we perceive a significant change – a perception encouraged by the lazy journalism which gets easy copy from assigning doubtful attributes to a decade – accentuates the sense that we should do something worthy of the end of an era.
But the end of one era is the beginning of another and these are times to challenge us. Despite the over-inflated expectations of Copenhagen and the inevitable perception that it has 'failed', there is still much for which to work and to hope. Within the next six months, there will be a general election in the UK – and there is far more at stake than the old Labour-Conservative duel.
The health, relevance and very survival of our democracy and constitution demands reform from the bottom up. The financial crash and the grasping, mindless consumerism which made it possible - notwithstanding the immoral behaviour of many in banking and financial services - demands a more mature response than a peevish impatience for things to return to the 'normality' which triggered the calamity.
None of this will happen if we decide that it is all to big for the individual to influence. Engagement with rapidly growing movements such as the 10:10 campaign (reduce your carbon footprint by 10 per cent by the end of 2010) or the democratic reform group, Vote for a Change; a careful examination and amendment of life away from uncritical materialism towards greater simplicity, these all offer us more fruitful fields for resolve than a half hearted intention to go to the gym more often.
There is real power in committed individual action. Andrew Simms, a strategy advisor to the 10:10 campaign, writes of attempting to persuade Tony Blair to promote the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign. “I agree with what you say” was the then Prime Minister's response, “but I'm not going to do anything unless you can show me that there's public support for this.”
Rather than wasting energy on deploring the amoral cynicism of this attitude, let us take encouragement from its implicit acknowledgement of the strength we have when individual actions build up to effect real change. By being signs of contradiction, we have the ability sweep away the self-serving and sclerotic and demolish excuses for inaction.
When, as a young woman, I would rail against injustice or wrongdoing, my mother's response was always, memorably, the same: “Well dear, we have to show them a better way.” It is a homely version of Gandhi's exhortation to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
If there is to be any real meaning in the emotional tug towards new beginnings which the entirely arbitrary date of 1st January provokes in us, let it be one of believing that change is possible and that it is not someone else's responsibility.
A happy, life-changing and contradictory New Year to all.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger
More from Jill Segger on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/Jill+Segger