In the increasingly secular West, the New Year is often nothing more than an excuse for excess. But the roots of New Year festivals stretch back to the sacred calendars of antiquity. Most religions have sacred or liturgical calendars that assign special days for the commemoration of their great spiritual events and the mighty acts of God. In a sense, a sacred calendar ritually re-creates the major events in a community's sacred history on a cyclical yearly basis.
In Christianity, such holy days are often called feasts or festivals (from Latin "festus," meaning "holy day"). Among eastern Christians there are 12 Great Feasts, with Easter, the "Feast of Feasts," marking a 13th. Five of the 12 focus on the life of Mary, clearly indicating her importance in the worship of eastern Christians since at least the sixth century. Interestingly, the themes of Marian feasts often parallel similar feasts related to the life of Christ.
In Jerusalem and throughout the East, these ancient celebrations create a sacred rhythm in the life of traditional eastern Christian communities. By following a schedule of scriptural readings associated with them, eastern Christians commemorate events in the life of Christ each year. The new year is thus not a time for parties and feeble resolutions, but for ritually renewing one's commitment to Jesus by participating in the yearly sacred cycle.
In the East the liturgical new year begins on Sept. 1, and the first great feast is the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8), celebrated since the eighth century. The Exaltation of the Cross, or Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14), celebrates both the discovery (archaically, the "invention") of the wood of the True Cross by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.
The Presentation of Mary (Nov. 21) recalls a story from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James that narrates the presentation of the 3-year-old Mary to the High Priest at the Temple; she served as a temple maiden, weaving the temple veil that would be rent at Jesus' death.
Christmas (Dec. 25) — with Easter, the most important holy day for Protestants — celebrates the birth of the Savior. Epiphany (Jan. 6), or "the manifestation," is among the most ancient and sacred Christian festivals. Originally, in the fourth century, it commemorated Christ's baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), but its close proximity to Christmas eventually linked it to the visitation of the Magi as well (Matthew 2:1-12). As such, it's often called the "Twelfth Night" of Christmas.
The Presentation of Christ at the Temple (Feb. 2, 40 days after Christmas) — also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary — commemorates the visit of Mary and Christ at the temple in fulfillment of Levitical purification law (Lev. 12:1-4) and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-28). In the West it's often called Candlemas, since it's celebrated with a procession of lighted candles, symbolizing Simeon's prophecy that Christ would be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). The feast of the Annunciation (March 25), or "Lady Day," honors Gabriel's annunciation of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26-38).
Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), commemorating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-10) and the beginning of Holy Week, has been observed since at least the fourth century. In Jerusalem today, it's celebrated with a great procession of thousands of pilgrims who, carrying palm branches and singing hymns, follow Christ's path from Bethany to Jerusalem.
Easter is the most sacred day for Christians, commemorating the atonement, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, for eastern Christians each Sunday service commemorates the Resurrection — a weekly remembrance of Easter. Ascension Day (the sixth Thursday, or 40th day after Easter), recalls Christ's ascent into heaven after his 40-day ministry (Acts 1:1-11)
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Pentecost — also called Whitsunday or "White Sunday," because of the white robes worn anciently by the newly baptized converts — is the seventh Sunday after Easter, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles after Christ's ascension (Acts 2). The feast of the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) commemorates the Transfiguration of Christ (Luke 9:28-36).
The Dormition ("Falling Asleep") of Mary (Aug. 15) is known in the West as the Assumption of Mary. It memorializes a late tradition that Mary didn't die but was assumed bodily into Heaven, paralleling Christ's post-resurrection ascension.
Thus, for eastern Christians, the New Year isn't a time for drunken revelry but for reconsecration of the spiritual life, the true gift of Christmas.